September 15, 2012

Pro-business vetting confounds towns

Certified Business Friendly Community Program is getting mixed reviews

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The state's new Certified Business Friendly Community Program, started by Gov. Paul LePage and overseen by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, is getting mixed reviews from some who have participated in the process and others interested in economic development in Maine.

So far, the program has certified 14 of 24 municipalities that applied in the first two rounds. A third round of applications is due Oct. 5, and recipients will be announced in November.

Communities seeking certification must submit a six-page application, written largely in a narrative format, explaining what they've done to promote business development. The program also randomly surveys 10 businesses in each community and seeks letters of support from businesses and comment from community members.

A seven-member panel of state officials and volunteers reviews the applications individually and as a group before recommending certifiable communities to Economic Development Commissioner George Gervais and LePage.

"The program recognizes that they have processes in place that are as business-friendly as possible," said Doug Ray, spokesman for the state economic development department.

Certified communities receive an "Open for Business" sign to post somewhere in those communities. The certification is good for two years and includes no funding or other incentives. The program has no budget, Ray said, so signs are made by the Maine Department of Transportation.

Advocates say the certification program effectively recognizes communities that are business-friendly and encourages others to follow their lead. Critics, including some who like the program, say the application and review process is unclear and subjective.

"The evaluation process was an unknown," said Alyssa Tibbetts, Cumberland's economic development director. "Our resubmission was basically the same as our first application. It's still not clear to me what tipped the scales for us in the second round."

Shane, Cumberland's town manager, said the review process seemed limited by a lack of face-to-face interaction between applicants and the review panel. He suggested that the panel meet briefly with applicants, allowing them to deliver short presentations and answer any questions.

Others say the certification program's focus on being business-friendly ignores other critical aspects of successful economic development.

In addition to having sensible regulations, communities must take steps to preserve precious resources, such as historic downtowns and open spaces, said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit that promotes economic growth, resource protection and community revitalization.

Municipalities also must have policies that encourage innovation to ensure economic vitality in a global marketplace and that forge partnerships among government agencies, nonprofits and private companies, Smith said.

"The (LePage) administration has recognized a piece of what's needed to promote economic development," Smith said. "I hope for each of these communities, being business-friendly is just one piece of an effective economic development program."

Peter DelGreco, a member of the certification review panel, agrees with Nancy Smith's three-pronged premise. He's president and CEO of Maine & Co., a private nonprofit that promotes business in Maine.

However, DelGreco said, the certification process purposely makes no judgment about each community's economic development goals. It only asks that the goals and the process to achieve them be clearly spelled out for the community and those who want to do business there.

"This is an important piece of the puzzle so that potential investment can happen in a predictable way," DelGreco said. "Tell us what you're willing to say 'yes' to."

The sign and accolades aside, DelGreco said, the real value of the certification program is the self-evaluation and explanation that communities must go through in preparing an application. Several applicants have noted the benefits of the program, he said, including Dave Milan, economic development director in Bucksport, which was certified in the first round.

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