Don’t look now, but central Maine’s economy is trending upwards. Colby College has a lot to do with it.

According to a recent report, Colby’s operations, investments, and student and visitor spending have accounted for nearly $1.5 billion in statewide economic output over the last five years. Of that $1.5 billion, the vast majority ($1.1 billion) occurred in the greater Waterville region.

In 2018 alone, Colby’s presence as one of the region’s largest private employers was on full display. The college supported more than $300 million in sales to local businesses, in addition to over 2,500 jobs and nearly $115 million in wages paid out. Moreover, the college generated almost $9 million in tax revenue for the region, helping support some of the public programs that Mainers rely on most.

From students’ visits to nearby cafes to the college’s investments in new facilities, the college is responsible for much of the economic vibrancy that local residents feel on a daily basis. Indeed, Colby’s work is inextricably linked to the well-being of its neighbors. That should be commended and celebrated.

At FirstPark, we’ve seen the college’s valuable contributions firsthand. In 2005, Colby teamed up with us to provide financial assistance for a speculative building that is now home to MaineGeneral Orthopedics. Without Colby’s help, we couldn’t have afforded the building, but Colby stepped up and covered the entire cost. Over the years, that investment has benefited countless patients who depend on MaineGeneral for life-changing services.

While Colby is leading the way, it is not the only reason for the economic optimism we are currently feeling. Local businesses are following suit, developing new, cutting-edge ideas and seeing them through to produce real-world benefits — from real product development to job creation.

That entrepreneurial spirit was quite palpable last month, when more than 100 local businesses attended the Kennebec Valley Business Expo. At the event, dozens of business owners announced that they are hiring, encouraging local talent to join their ranks and contribute to business expansion and economic growth.

I was at the event myself, meeting with local business owners and Maine influencers like Greenlight Maine host Julene Gervais, and the general consensus was this: Maine is an ideal place to start and run a business successfully.

This is borne out in the numbers. Maine is home to more than 147,000 small businesses, which employ nearly 290,000 workers — half of the state workforce. In fact, small business activity accounts for 99 percent of all business activity in Maine.

Fortunately, the Mills administration is taking steps to keep it that way. Earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills and Heather Johnson, commissioner of Economic and Community Development, presented the early stages of a 10-year economic development plan for the state. Their goal is to not only attract more businesses to Maine but also bolster and expand the current businesses in the state. It shows that our elected officials are listening to people’s input from all over the state.

What separates Mainers is that we pride ourselves on coming up with new ideas. It is second nature to us, and I know because I run a business park that attracts some of Maine’s best and brightest minds. We are constantly looking for ways to keep up with our hard-working entrepreneurs. For example, that’s why we have plans to become America’s best dog-friendly business park, introducing a dog park for employees to walk and play with their dogs before, during or after work hours.

It is our collective responsibility to support the job creators responsible for so much of our state’s prosperity— from Colby to the thousands of small businesses across Maine. When we work together, the Maine economy can and will continue to reach new heights.

Jim Dinkle is executive director of FirstPark, a business park in Oakland.

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