The Maine Real Estate & Development Association hosted a first-ever forum on May 20, bringing state leaders together to brainstorm about how to boost the state’s economy and make Maine more attractive to businesses.
The forum was prompted by Maine’s ranking in last place on Forbes magazine’s recent “Best States To Do Business” list.
To address this – and overcome it – MEREDA officials thought it wise to seek help from someone in the know in Utah, which had the opposite spot on Forbes’ list – at the top, deemed the best U.S. state for business – for a third straight year.
They invited Alan Hall, a highly successful entrepreneur from Utah, to give the keynote address at MEREDA’s “50th to 1st: Ingredients of a Successful Economic Development Plan” forum, which drew more than 300 legislative, business, and community leaders from a variety of sectors around Maine.
A venture capitalist who founded Grow America, a national organization that encourages entrepreneurialism, Hall shared what he considers the key pillars of economic development, starting with a desire for improvement.
“Government officials and business leaders need to resolve that they want to move the state forward,” he said.
Using Utah as a model, Hall’s recipe for success includes: a business-friendly government; abundant and educated workforce; abundant and inexpensive land, water, energy, transportation and communications; cooperative financial institutions; quality of life; innovation; revenue growth opportunities; and anchor industries.
According to Hall, those critical components are part of a shared vision, where the governor, business leaders, educators, nonprofits and legislators work together to create a place where businesses can flourish with stable and predictable government regulations.
While Maine scores high on quality of life, it falls short on many of the components discussed. For example, Hall explained that Utah’s cost of doing business is 27 percent lower than any other state. It also has a strong focus on preventing youth out-migration – adopting policies to keep the youth in Utah; and, on education, boasting 43 percent of adults hold certificates or advanced degrees. In addition, the state invests significantly in research and development throughout its university system.
Drew Sigfridson, president of MEREDA and managing director at CBRE | The Boulos Co., said he was pleased to welcome such a large crowd to a forum on such a tough topic.
“Maine needs an economic development plan if it is going to compete for business nationally and make progress from its last-place ranking on Forbes’ list of best places to do business,” he said.
With that in mind, Maine’s strengths and opportunities were examined. Andrea Cianchette Maker, public policy counsel to MEREDA and attorney with Pierce Atwood, LLP, led a discussion with six Maine leaders representing a variety of industry sectors including economic development, education, finance, international trade, manufacturing and real estate development.
The talk focused on how Maine might be able to catapult to the top of lists such as Forbes’.
Panelist Petur J. Petersen, station manager of Eimskip Portland, suggested that the state make improvements to port infrastructure to move goods and services out of the state. He noted that the city of Portland and other public entities were helpful to his firm in establishing its presence in Maine, but that more can be done.
The panel discussion was robust. Peter DelGreco of Maine & Company – which helps out-of-state businesses looking to relocate to Maine and helps existing businesses grow – urged Mainers to “take care of our businesses here” and that “we cannot derail what is already working well.”
That prompted John Everets, chairman and CEO of The Bank of Maine, to worry aloud, “Is Maine at risk of losing companies?”
Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons responded by saying the “business community needs to support and work more proactively with education.” And, he said, Maine needs a plan for education and economic development and “must commit for the long term.”
Kent Peterson, CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies, agreed, saying that quality of life in Maine is not enough on its own to draw businesses here.
Josh Benthien, a partner in Northland Enterprises, a Maine-based development company, noted that affordable energy needs to be part of the mix, and that Maine needs to “pay attention to our clusters to attract anchor businesses.”
Attendees were asked to write down what they think Maine is doing wrong – and right – to improve its economy. Maker and others will review their feedback in the coming weeks, and she said MEREDA will work on a model to bring feedback to Maine's top officials.
“The health of Maine’s economy is a direct correlation to the health of our industry,” explained Sigfridson. “While Maine is starting to show signs of growth, it is important that we have ongoing dialogue to build on that momentum and identify the critical components for a successful statewide economic development planning process for moving Maine up the list.”
Sigfridson announced that the real estate sector, a leading driver of Maine’s economy, rose 2.4% over last year according to the latest data. In its semi-annual report on the state of Maine’s real estate industry, the MEREDA Index, increased to 78. The increase in the Index is attributed to the overall increase in the real estate industry—specifically residential home sales, commercial transactions, occupancy rates and new construction jobs. This is the second consecutive increase in the Index since its inception.
“Maine’s economy continues to move in the right direction,” Sigfridson said. “Historically, the real estate sector has been a leading indicator in terms of overall economic recovery, which isn’t to say there is not work to be done – but folks should be optimistic about the health of Maine’s real estate industry.” Added construction jobs are likely to spur even more growth within the commercial market, he noted.
Also at the event, MEREDA bestowed its annual awards for real estate projects that embody its belief in responsible development and involved significant investment of resources and statewide job creation.
Awardees included the Alfond Center for Health, by MaineGeneral Medical Center; Cross Insurance Center, by the city of Bangor; Mönlycke Health Care, by Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority; Westin Portland Harborview, by Rockbridge; the Sanford Mill Historic Renovation, by Northland Enterprises; and the Synergy Center, by IDEXX Laboratories’ World Campus. Projects were selected based environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, social impact and job creation.