May 27, 2013

New FirstPark boss wants to build on region's metal-working strength

Brad Jackson balances a tight budget and tough expectations

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Hollywood has its movies. Silicon Valley has its software developers.

click image to enlarge

Brad Jackson, new director of FirstPark, at his office in Oakland on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

FIRSTPARK MEMBER TOWNS

Anson, Benton, Canaan, China, Clinton, Cornville, Fairfield, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hartland, Manchester, Norridgewock, Oakland, Palmyra, Pittsfield, Readfield, Rome, St. Albans, Sidney, Smithfield, Solon, Starks, Waterville and Winslow.

And central Maine has its metal manufacturing industry, according to Brad Jackson, the new executive director of FirstPark, a 285-acre business park created by the Kennebec Regional Development Authority to bolster the regional economy.

Jackson's plans for the future of the organization, and to help rebuild the region's economy, extend beyond both his current job description and his current budget.

To date, FirstPark has been judged largely by the number of businesses it attracts and how many jobs those businesses produce — totals that some local officials have criticized, saying the park isn't living up to its promise or the investment from area towns and cities. But Jackson said he is tackling the question of FirstPark's success from a new angle.

Jackson said he understands that some of the 24 member communities that have paid into the park to finance its budget have concerns about how fast FirstPark has brought in businesses in recent years. FirstPark, created in 2000, was initially billed as a regional economic development project that could create as many as 3,000 jobs in a 20-year period. To date, job totals have reached close to 1,000.

Jackson said there are reasons that the park's biggest coup — attracting a T-Mobile call center that employs hundreds — happened nearly a decade ago, soon after the park was created.

"Well, number one, we've got the worst ... economic recession since the Great Depression," he said. "But number two, this organization is not robustly funded to play the business attraction game right."

In order to attract businesses quickly enough to fill the park in five to 10 years, Jackson would like to have a dedicated employee doing nothing but going to business trade shows to pitch the area as a good place to do business.

Under the park's $933,706 annual budget, Jackson said, he can go to a couple of trade shows a year.

"With limited resources comes limited returns, and there's only so much I can do with the limited resources that I have," he said.

Even so, Jackson said he's committed to bringing new businesses to the park.

Jackson began March 7, replacing former director Diana Rafuse, who left in November after three years in the position.

He is paid a salary of $75,000, which costs the park $92,400 per year with benefits included.

Jackson said he won't offer empty promises, but does have a plan that's based on networking and direct outreach to sell properties within the park to prospective business developers.

"My guidance right now is to sell lots," he said. "Make money, please communities who want to get back into a cash-flow positive relationship. That's what I want to do first and foremost, is respect that client relationship."

Creating jobs

Jackson said he's looking to FirstPark's board for guidance as to whether emphasis should be on selling lots or creating jobs, but he feels it is a mixture of both.

Meanwhile, Jackson said, he is trying to lay the groundwork for a good relationship with FirstPark's member communities by arranging to meet with town leaders in each municipality to explain his goals and efforts.

Being on the same page as town leaders today could help to smooth the way for a business deal in the future, he said.

"I've got to respect that these communities are my client, because there will be times where, that in order to land a company, I may have to suggest an incentive package that may not be in the fiscal interests of some of those communities," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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