AUGUSTA — Gov.-elect Janet Mills nominated the woman charged with expanding broadband access in Maine to be her economic development commissioner Thursday.

Heather Johnson, who has a background in public- and private-sector economic development and communications, now heads the ConnectME Authority, the agency responsible for expanding Maine’s broadband network. Mills pledged during the campaign to improve broadband access in Maine.

“Heather brings decades worth of private and public sector experience to the Department of Economic and Community Development,” Mills, a Democrat, said during a State House news conference.

Johnson, 48, is Mills’ seventh Cabinet nominee. She would replace acting Commissioner Denise Garland, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage after George Gervais resigned in June. Gervais had been nominated by LePage in March to head the Maine State Housing Authority, but his confirmation was blocked by Democrats in the state Senate.

“I have dedicated my career to fostering economic development, both in private companies and in rural communities across Maine, and I am excited not only by the opportunity to work with economic development agencies, business and communities across the state, but by the great potential we have to find sustainable growth strategies for all parts of Maine,” Johnson said in a prepared statement.

THE BENEFITS OF CONNECTIVITY

Prior to joining ConnectME, Johnson was executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp. from 2015 to 2018. She has also worked in the private sector for technology and communications companies, including Nokia, Gateway and Toshiba.

If confirmed, Johnson will oversee more than two dozen specialists in several bureaus charged with helping communities and businesses prosper through programs ranging from targeted tax relief to community block grants, to tourism marketing.

She said she will take a region-by-region approach to economic development in Maine.

“I think connectivity is absolutely one of the ways to do that. Allow people to work other places and work remotely – most large companies are moving to remote workforces so if we create connectivity options, people will be able to live wherever they want and work there as well,” Johnson said.

She said her first task will be to take a complete inventory of all economic development organizations and agencies in Maine to coordinate their efforts while avoiding duplication.

“We don’t need to re-create what is already out there and we don’t want to create redundancy,” Johnson said.

Johnson lives in Norridgewock with her husband and son, grew up in Skowhegan and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine.

She said the state’s rural and urban areas face different economic challenges.

“Each community has different assets that we need to leverage,” she said, “which makes it a very individual approach by area.” She said tools are already available, including state and federal grants, tax increment financing districts, local economic development groups and a community college network that can help solve workforce development issues.

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE SUPPORT

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce which represents about 5,000 business in the state, said he supports Johnson’s nomination.

“She is a very thoughtful, articulate and collaborative person,” Connors said. He cited Johnson’s experience and background, especially her understanding of rural economic development needs.

“That is very important,” Connors said. “Oftentimes we hear people talk about the two Maines, but there are really many Maines, if you think about it, because each region is quite distinct.”

Mills said a lack of affordable health coverage remains the top concern for Maine businesses. She said this would change somewhat once she takes office and a voter-approved plan to expand the state’s Medicaid program is fully implemented. She dismissed one of LePage’s frequent concerns – the cost of electricity for Maine businesses – saying the state enjoys some of the lowest electricity costs in New England.

“I think it will appeal to businesses to move here when we bring down the cost of health insurance in this state,” Mills said.

Johnson said Maine has yet to achieve widespread broadband connectivity, but added that even with universal broadband the race for faster and faster connection speeds will continue.

“If you watch urban markets, they continue to grow and have more ubiquitous, faster coverage every day,” Johnson said. “So I’m not even sure there is an end destination to connectivity. It’s about enabling people to do what they need to do.”

Mills said Maine’s dispersed population has been a challenge to internet service providers and that creating connectivity hubs in rural Maine would be an effective first step toward achieving universal broadband.

She and Johnson said government and private companies will have to collaborate to provide rural areas with more broadband access.

Johnson’s nomination will go to a public hearing before the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Commerce Committee, followed by a confirmation vote in the state Senate.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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