OAKLAND — Hollywood has its movies. Silicon Valley has its software developers.
And central Maine has its metal manufacturing industry, according to Brad Jackson, the new executive director of FirstPark, a 285-acre business park created by the Kennebec Regional Development Authority to bolster the regional economy.
Jackson’s plans for the future of the organization, and to help rebuild the region’s economy, extend beyond both his current job description and his current budget.
To date, FirstPark has been judged largely by the number of businesses it attracts and how many jobs those businesses produce — totals that some local officials have criticized, saying the park isn’t living up to its promise or the investment from area towns and cities. But Jackson said he is tackling the question of FirstPark’s success from a new angle.
Jackson said he understands that some of the 24 member communities that have paid into the park to finance its budget have concerns about how fast FirstPark has brought in businesses in recent years. FirstPark, created in 2000, was initially billed as a regional economic development project that could create as many as 3,000 jobs in a 20-year period. To date, job totals have reached close to 1,000.
Jackson said there are reasons that the park’s biggest coup — attracting a T-Mobile call center that employs hundreds — happened nearly a decade ago, soon after the park was created.
“Well, number one, we’ve got the worst … economic recession since the Great Depression,” he said. “But number two, this organization is not robustly funded to play the business attraction game right.”
In order to attract businesses quickly enough to fill the park in five to 10 years, Jackson would like to have a dedicated employee doing nothing but going to business trade shows to pitch the area as a good place to do business.
Under the park’s $933,706 annual budget, Jackson said, he can go to a couple of trade shows a year.
“With limited resources comes limited returns, and there’s only so much I can do with the limited resources that I have,” he said.
Even so, Jackson said he’s committed to bringing new businesses to the park.
Jackson began March 7, replacing former director Diana Rafuse, who left in November after three years in the position.
He is paid a salary of $75,000, which costs the park $92,400 per year with benefits included.
Jackson said he won’t offer empty promises, but does have a plan that’s based on networking and direct outreach to sell properties within the park to prospective business developers.
“My guidance right now is to sell lots,” he said. “Make money, please communities who want to get back into a cash-flow positive relationship. That’s what I want to do first and foremost, is respect that client relationship.”
Jackson said he’s looking to FirstPark’s board for guidance as to whether emphasis should be on selling lots or creating jobs, but he feels it is a mixture of both.
Meanwhile, Jackson said, he is trying to lay the groundwork for a good relationship with FirstPark’s member communities by arranging to meet with town leaders in each municipality to explain his goals and efforts.
Being on the same page as town leaders today could help to smooth the way for a business deal in the future, he said.
“I’ve got to respect that these communities are my client, because there will be times where, that in order to land a company, I may have to suggest an incentive package that may not be in the fiscal interests of some of those communities,” he said.
For example, he said, a company might want to lease a building at a rate of $3 per square foot in order to move to the area. Under that scenario, Jackson said, he would have to pitch communities on the idea that “if we want to give a subsidy, you might have to forsake your upside for a year or two or three until this company takes off, and once they’re cash-flow positive, they’ll start paying it off.”
That’s part of the investment needed to attract new businesses to the park, he said.
“Sometimes, you know, if I really want to create jobs, which is what they hired me for, we all have to pony up,” he said.
Jackson is in the process of purchasing a home and moving his family to the area from New York, but for now, he rents a home in Waterville and spends long days and long nights working at the office.
Jackson is a former military man with an economic development background. He has overseen rebuilding projects in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of 20 years with the U.S. Army, and worked most recently as executive director of a development agency in upstate New York, where he helped to attract a $275 million wind farm and a natural gas pipeline to the area.
Jackson graduated from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree, and got his master’s in international relations from Troy University in Alabama in 1985.
State Rep. John Picchiotti, R-Fairfield, who sits on the FirstPark board of directors, said he is impressed with Jackson in these early months.
“I think he’s come into our community and done a very good job of networking and getting a feel of the community,” he said.
Picchiotti said Jackson’s background of economic development success in upstate New York gives him confidence that he can thrive here as well.
“He knows the ruralness of our area, how to go after businesses that need to move to our area,” he said.
Picchiotti said he would have to hear more about Jackson’s specific ideas about the development authority’s future before he could comment on them.
A regional economy
Jackson thinks it’s key to use a “cluster strategy,” in which he identifies a group of similar businesses in the area and uses his resources to help that industry grow and thrive.
That’s where the metal manufacturing industry comes in.
“My research has told me that there’s 15 machine manufacturers and 13 machine shops,” he said.
Jackson said that helping these businesses to grow and capitalize on opportunities in the global economy is a to way to achieve economic development in central Maine.
Jackson said he needs a better understanding of the industry’s challenges, threats and opportunities and help them to find international markets, sources of capital, and helpful business networking venues.
“I can do all of this with my background,” he said.
This strategy is Jackson’s answer to why communities should continue to support FirstPark, even when it may seem to have the same economic development mission as other organizations in the area.
A community’s local economic development director faces geographical limitations that hinder real growth, Jackson said.
“He might have a machine shop in his backyard, but he can’t take a regional cluster approach,” he said, “which is, according to the literature, the way to develop a regional economy.”
The Kennebec Regional Development Authority, which was created by the Legislature, has a unique perspective and set of powers, such as the ability to issue bonds, he said. To date, FirstPark is the only project that the development authority has established.
Jackson said he hopes that will change, and the future direction of the organization is a discussion that he plans to hold with the development authority’s board over the next few years.
“What happens to this organization after it sells all the lots?” Jackson said. “Are we going to close the doors and end this awesome creation that was established, or are we going to transition into another regional project and do something else?”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287