OAKLAND — The Kennebec Regional Development Authority should expand its role beyond FirstPark, its flagship business park, and take on more roles and responsibilities in order to become competitive with other parts of the county, KRDA Executive Director Brad Jackson told the Oakland Town Council at its meeting Wednesday.

Jackson’s remarks were part of a presentation on his vision for the future of the economic development agency.

KRDA should become a “multi-functional, multi-capable public authority doing multiple projects in central Maine,” not just focus on selling real estate in FirstPark, Jackson said. The authority’s new budget includes funding to hire outside technical experts, reflecting the change in perspective, he said.

“We have to get beyond a mindset that isn’t thrilled with regionalism,” Jackson told the council.

Oakland is Jackson’s third stop on a monthslong tour of the 24 towns and cities in Somerset and Kennebec counties that are members of the development authority.

In his remarks, he outlined a plan to transform KRDA from an organization leasing and selling space at FirstPark to a multi-purpose agency that could drive economic development regionally.

“Real estate transactions are not economic development,” he told the board.

Unlike other states, such as New York, where he headed a two-county public authority before coming to KRDA, Maine provides no role for regional structures, Jackson said. Essentially, there are two levels — the state and the municipal.

That puts the state at a disadvantage, especially since businesses are looking increasingly for industry “clusters” such as manufacturing or technology to invest in. The Kennebec Valley isn’t necessarily competing against different cities in the state, but different parts of the country that share its strengths and attributes, Jackson said, and those areas often are organized regionally.

“Until you are oriented and organized along those lines, you are not going to have success driving investment,” Jackson told councilors.

Businesses are looking for more than just real estate; they are looking for a partner that can give technical assistance and help make local connections, Jackson said. The primary reason that Road King Technologies, a Montreal-based company, set up a U.S. headquarters at FirstPark last year was because he connected them with a Winthrop manufacturer that met its needs, he said, offering that as an example of services the authority could provide.

In his presentation, Jackson said the vision is to expand the scope of what KRDA is doing by building its marketing, financing and staffing capabilities, as well as forging partnerships with local colleges to build an “innovation eco-system” that links KRDA, academia and industry.

Jackson especially wants to look at the possibility of becoming a bonding agency like the Finance Authority of Maine so that nonprofits and businesses could have access to tax-free federal loans through the authority in exchange for a brokerage fee.

That arrangement could bring in revenue to supplement FirstPark real estate deals, another goal of the park, Jackson said. He also wants to look at how to make FirstPark a true technology campus or whether to look in a different direction.

Making his vision a reality will require additional resources, since Jackson wants to delve into how Maine law puts limits on the creation of robust regional structures. The agency’s $956,000 budget this year is unchanged from 2014, but money is being directed to different areas, Jackson said.

The 24 member communities invested to build the park, but some have been disappointed with the return on their investment, and communities collectively have lost millions of dollars over the last 14 years.

Oakland Councilor Dana Wrigley, however, contended that negative feelings about FirstPark failed to take into account the $19 million that by his calculation it has brought into the local economy.

“I don’t see why we see so many negative stories about this,” Wrigley said. “It’s never grown to what we envisioned it would, but it’s not dead.”

While agreeing that FirstPark has not lived up to expectations, Jackson noted that it landed a major tenant, a T-Mobile call center, very early on.

“I would argue that type of investment comes into a region like this once-in-a-10-year flood,” Jackson said.

In an interview outside the meeting, Jackson said the budget and upcoming meetings with member communities are the first step in a yearslong process of evaluating and reorienting the agency. He will propose the 2015 budget to the agency’s ruling assembly on Feb. 26. The budget will be voted on March 26. All voters in the member towns can participate.

Jackson expects to finish his tour of KRDA members by July. He said he did not intend to address concerns about the efficacy of KRDA raised by some towns or talk about the process some municipalities used to join the authority, the legality of which has been questioned in Gardiner.

“I can’t address what happened in the past. All I can do is look forward,” Jackson said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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