SKOWHEGAN — Christian Savage is his own best model for economic development success.

Leave home, return with a college degree and some work experience under your belt, and settle down.

Simple.

For Savage, 37, the road to becoming the new executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp. took him from his native Skowhegan to the University of Southern Maine and a small contracting business in Portland, then to Waterville as program manager at Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, a brief stint with United Way of Mid-Maine, and back to Skowhegan, where he took over the SEDC executive post earlier this year.

Now, with a new baby in December with his wife Krista, and two children from a previous marriage, Savage says he is ready to focus on jobs, recreational tourism, agriculture, forestry and workforce development in Maine’s third largest county.

Savage said Maine, and Somerset County in particular, have aging populations and part of his job is trying to attract young professionals for both the quality of life in Maine and the contributions they will make in the business sector.

“I told the board when I was hired that this isn’t a stepping stone for me — I’m looking at this for the long term,” he said. “I want to do my part in the county’s success of creating opportunity, whether it be for us or our children. If they move, then hopefully they can move back and have opportunity, and if they stay, they’ll have opportunity.”

Savage’s late father, David Savage, did the same thing, starting a restaurant business in Texas, then returning home to Skowhegan with Christian’s mother, Cheri, to run the Heritage House Restaurant.

Christian Savage, the new executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation, outside the Somerset Superior Courthouse in Skowhegan on Wednesday. Staff photo by David Leaming

David Savage is a member of the Skowhegan Area High School Football Hall of Fame and spent years as the president of both the Skowhegan Area and the Mid-Maine chambers of commerce.

Christian Savage, a 1999 graduate of Skowhegan Area High School, took over in March for Heather Finnemore Johnson, who is now director at the ConnectME Authority, a part of Maine state government with a mission to facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses.

Savage said the foundation set by Johnson in work she did to get broadband in Somerset County helps his role at tackling the top four priorities of the SEDC: Affordable broadband internet expansion, workforce development, business consulting for access to capital and “Quality of Place,” or recreational tourism, which he said is critical to the area.

Vicki Alward, of Skowhegan Savings, the chairwoman of the SEDC board, said Savage was the right fit.

“Early in the year, our executive committee interviewed several candidates and selected Christian to be our executive director,” Alward said. “Christian is bright and energetic. He is committed to improving the economic conditions of our county. He has shown in previous roles that he is able to work together with other agencies and business leaders in projects that have a widespread community impact. We are excited to have him working on behalf of SEDC.”

Alward said that, as expected, Savage’s first six months on the job has been largely getting to know the strategic initiatives of SEDC and performing outreach activities with business leaders, various groups and municipal officials.

Savage said the SEDC has seats on the board for each of the five Somerset County commissioner districts, and is not just Skowhegan based.

“We run all over the county — from Fairfield to the Canadian border,” he said. “Geographically it’s a huge area and I think there’s a ton of opportunity.”

He said setbacks in industry, such as paper production, have been largely offset by two major employers — Sappi North America, which has approximately 725 employees, and New Balance, with approximately 600 employees between the Norridgewock and Skowhegan factories.

He said Sappi is reinvesting in diversified products and has hired a lot of the laid-off Madison Paper Co. workers.

“Between Sappi and New Balance, they kind of make one of our largest industries in Somerset County to be manufacturing — and that’s not typical in a lot of places in the state or country,” Savage said. “They provide an income that can support a family.”

The action plan for SEDC is retention and expansion of manufacturing jobs along with attracting tourism as a cash cow, while promoting training and educational programs to meet market demands, Savage said.

“It’s creating the environment for businesses to succeed and expand and grow,” he said. “It’s connecting businesses and residents to the resources that are out there, whether it’s ours or some of our partners.”

The SEDC annual budget is about $80,000, which covers Savage, a part-time bookkeeper and Mac Watts, the grant coordinator.

SEDC also runs three micro-loan programs and aids in workforce programs including the Improving Outcomes for Youth Program run predominantly by Watts, the one-time principal at Madison Area High School.

The Improving Outcomes program, funded by a two-year state DHHS grant for $150,000, aims to teach high school students financial literacy, such as how to balance a checkbook, what credit is and job shadowing.

Savage said half of his time is spent in the office at the county building on High Street and half of his time is spent on the road covering Somerset County, visiting businesses, colleagues and community partners.

The SEDC also is trying a pilot program called Back to Work with a grant from the Maine Community Foundation for the “what’s next” aspect of looking for a job and returning to work, including daycare costs, financial assistance and transportation.

Savage said he personally and the SEDC board support Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed 145-mile transmission line project through parts of Somerset and Franklin counties. State officials are gearing up to review applications for the New England Clean Energy Connect, and Savage said it is a reality that needs to be faced.

“My board took a position in support of that project before I was hired for a few reasons,” he said. “One being the consistent feed to the New England grid for power. What we experienced in January — that cold stretch — every power producer came on line because we couldn’t meet demand.

“They were burning millions of gallons of oil a day to do it. And a lot of those plants, over the next 10 or 15 years, are coming off line, so this is a preemptive strike saying we need better, more consistent power. The reality is we all turn our lights on.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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