AUGUSTA — The Central Maine Business Breakfast drew 32 people from across the region Wednesday to the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine at Augusta to talk about what it takes to build a strong regional economy.

Keith Luke, deputy director of development services for the city of Augusta; Heather Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development; and Yellow Light Breen, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Development Foundation, comprised the panel of experts.

Here are the highlights:

• “We have an overnight population of about 20,000 people,” Luke said. “Our daytime population is 60,000, maybe even more. So we as a city and as a region (need) to have an infrastructure available to serve that population, whether they are here as state employees, federal employees or if they are here for medical reasons or to visit the Marketplace or other lifestyle centers in Augusta. The opportunity we have as a hub for that brainpower that comes to Augusta every day is significant. Over the next 10 and 20 years, we’ll be working harder to keep more of those people in Augusta and central Maine overnight. We need to continue to bring people back, because the people who come back are the best and the brightest at what they do.”

From left, Yellow Light Breen, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Development Foundation; Heather Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development; and Keith Luke, deputy director of development services for the city of Augusta, were panelists Wednesday at the Central Maine Business Breakfast at the Klahr Center in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

• “Each area has different assets, and we need  recognize what those assets are and leverage that,” Johnson said. “What we have seen, particularly in the central Maine area, is an ability of  people to start figuring out how to work together, and I think the Central Maine Growth Council is a great example of that. Some of things going in Waterville (are) a collaboration between the academic institutions, the high schools, the apprenticeship program out of the Department of Labor, some economic growth teams, the town and the private sector. When you get all of those groups working in the same direction and leveraging each other’s talents and efforts and investments, you can really make a difference. And you make a difference pretty quickly, and in a town where you wouldn’t necessarily think: ‘Let’s invest our money in Waterville and see what happens.’ You can make a significant difference.

“Major change like that doesn’t come without some challenges or some bumps in the road. But if you can hold that collaborative team together and move through those, then you have a significantly different landscape for the people who live in that community, for your businesses — and for other businesses — with just a couple of businesses added into the mix. There are such downstream and such broad-range (effects); one of those high-impact jobs creates how many other jobs in that market? You can’t buy a house right now in Waterville for anything. There are a number of other things that happen when people get together and work on them. … A lot of people think Waterville is a good example to look at.”

• “What is unique about the Kennebec Valley region?” Breen said. “Location is critical. Along the Kennebec, this entire region has been a hotbed of downtown revitalization and riverfront redevelopment, from Skowhegan down to Brunswick, tying that together. “You have an international airport an hour in each direction. You have Sugarloaf an hour in one direction. You have this tremendous educational infrastructure, two private colleges in the region, a university and a community college in the region and an easy access to other institutions on the immediate limits of the region. Maine has its challenges. As I travel around the state, there are so many other regions that would kill to have your region’s challenges. You sort of forget that. Leveraging intrinsic assets, the geography and the old bones of the region, and using cohesive leadership and good data, you have to be optimistic, but you also have to be realistic.”

• “While economic development and long-term change is a long-term piece, there are shorter-term things we can do as well,” Johnson said. “We have to balance the investments we want to make and how we do that in a way that creates a long-term trajectory that sustains different areas over the course of time, but also has short-term impact. If we are thoughtful about how we do that, we can make change. This Waterville dynamic has been a four-year process so far and already is showing change and household income in Waterville and infrastructural assets in Waterville. We have proposed a new Office of Outdoor Recreation as part of DECD, and part of that is the quality of life. How do we attract a workforce? Because that’s a big part of our foundational effort on economic growth; it has to be a productive workforce. We have to have assets that will attract them and keep them here. And we have different assets all over the state.”

• Luke said he received a call from a woman who is part of the Millinocket redevelopment authority and wanted to talk about what Augusta has done in revitalization. “I had one word for her: microbrewery.” While it’s about the beer, he said, it’s also about a lifestyle. In general, people are waiting longer to have children, and while their income is the same, technology has untethered them from a traditional work space. “At the state and local level, we need to be poised  to change or update our ordinances and our statutes to accommodate emerging industries, especially those that cater to hospitality and lifestyle issues,” he said, adding that as communities revise their comprehensive plans, they can incorporate ideas such as co-locating residential and office uses in nontraditional ways to recognize the dramatic changes that technology has brought about.

• “When I started this job, I said if I had a dollar for everyone who told me they dropped a call on (Interstate) 95 in Richmond, I would have that fixed by now,” Johnson said. Connectivity is important for established businesses as well as new opportunities, Johnson said, adding that remote call centers were being considered in central Maine, but it couldn’t happen because not enough people could be found who wanted to the job and had connectivity. While it’s one of the foundational elements the state needs, she said, Maine isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. A five-year plan exists that will close the connectivity gap, but now financial components are being worked through, including understanding how to access federal funds for rural broadband access. Connectivity now is really piecemeal, and that makes it complicated and less cool. “We’ll do that work. We know how to do that work.”

 


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