The LePage administration has stopped accepting applications to designate communities as “business-friendly” while it considers changes to the program.

The Certified Business-Friendly Community program started five years ago to recognize Maine towns and cities with policies and regulations helpful to business growth and development.

If certified by the Department of Economic and Community Development, communities receive a blue “open for business” sign to post in their towns, recognition on the department’s website and bonus points on Community Development Block Grant applications.

Thirty-five communities have been designated business-friendly since the program started, but interest appears to have waned. In the first year, 32 communities applied for certification, including five that reapplied after their initial petition was denied. The number of applicants dropped to 11 in 2013, and only two towns asked for certification last year.

There have been no applicants to the program in 2017.

In total, 57 towns and cities have sought certification from the state.

Now the department has stopped accepting applications altogether.

“In lieu of accepting applications, we are currently seeking feedback and input on what would make this program valuable to communities,” states a notice on the program website. The department is taking comments until Sept. 30.

The department declined multiple requests for an interview with a program administrator to explain why the certification process has been put on hiatus. Rather, a spokesman responded with a written statement.

“We continuously pursue policies to improve Maine’s competitiveness so Maine can be ‘open for business.’ The more communities we have promoting business-friendly policies, the more likely it is Maine will attract and retain more quality businesses in the years to come,” the spokesman, Doug Ray, said in a written response to a series of emailed questions about possible program changes. “We are currently looking at ways to improve the program going forward and assess the overall benefit to communities.”

Ray said the department hopes to begin accepting new applications in early 2018.

At its outset, the program was applauded for encouraging communities to review and improve policies and regulations regarding business and community development. For instance, towns are awarded points in the process if they have a comprehensive plan for development in place, or if there’s support for broadband infrastructure and commercial-grade power supplies.

But the application process, consisting of a six-page narrative and interviews with randomly selected businesses in the community, was criticized for being too subjective. Some communities that believed they had created a hospitable business environment were disappointed when they were initially denied certification and had to reapply.

The program also was criticized when the LePage administration abruptly stripped South Portland of its business-friendly status after the city passed an ordinance banning the export of tar sands oil in 2014. The certification was removed apparently without a review, leading some city leaders to question the designation’s importance.

Peter DelGreco, CEO of Maine and Co., a nonprofit that helps companies locate and expand in the state, said the program has been successful, but it needs to keep certified communities engaged.

DelGreco is on the program’s seven-member review panel, which is considering the possibility of recertification as a potential change to the program.

“The more we can engage communities to look inward and really develop what they are willing to say ‘yes’ to, the more we can keep it going,” DelGreco said. “A recertification process is the most efficient way to do that.”

Program applications may have declined because many communities that want status have already received it, DelGreco said. Some of the state’s largest cities – Lewiston, Auburn, Saco, Biddeford and Westbrook – are certified, but others, such as Portland, Bangor and Brunswick, have never applied.

“When I look at who has applied thus far and who has been certified, part of what I think is a lot of the obvious candidate locations are already part of the program,” DelGreco said of the 30-plus communities that have gone through the regulatory process. “I look at that math and I am thrilled.”

Madawaska, the last community to receive business-friendly certification, applied in September 2016 and was approved in January.

The town, at the northern tip of Aroostook County, wanted certification as part of its push to encourage development, including the launch of a new slogan, “Madawaska Marks the Spot,” said Community Development Director Suzie Paradis.

The town didn’t need to change anything to get the designation, Paradis said. It’s difficult to say whether the business-friendly label has generated interest in the town, but it may have helped get a $200,000 grant to capitalize local small businesses, she said.

“Right now, we are just happy we were designated, that we can proudly say we are business-friendly,” she said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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