Wednesday, June 19, 2013
By Kelley Bouchard email@example.com
In the last few years, Cumberland officials have hired an economic development director, streamlined the project-review process, launched a local business association and started recruiting companies to move to the rural coastal town.
On June 6 and Aug. 27, Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development announced communities that were certified as business-friendly through a new program to promote economic development. The next round of applications is due Oct. 5, and recipients will be announced in November.
Certified: Augusta, Bath, Biddeford, Brewer, Bucksport, Guilford, Lincoln, Saco and Sanford.
Rejected: Cumberland, Falmouth, Gorham, Houlton, Kennebunk, Pittsfield, Presque Isle, Rumford, South Portland and Waterboro.
Certified: Auburn, Cumberland, Lewiston, Pittsfield and Westbrook.
Rejected: Ellsworth and Richmond.
They've also adopted a comprehensive plan that set a goal to double the commercial tax base within a decade and established economic growth areas that offer welcoming zoning and tax breaks. As a result, several businesses, large and small, have moved to the bedroom community of Portland.
So Cumberland officials were shocked in June when their town wasn't listed among the nine recipients in the first round of the state's new Certified Business Friendly Community Program.
"A lot has happened in Cumberland," said Town Manager Bill Shane. "When we didn't make the cut, it was disappointing."
Cumberland has since been certified, after clarifying and resubmitting its application for a second round of certification in August. However, the fact that a town was rejected initially after being so purposely business-friendly raised questions about the fledgling state program.
Started by Gov. Paul LePage and overseen by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the quarterly certification program 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.
Maine's certified business-friendly communities are Augusta, Auburn, Bath, Biddeford, Brewer, Bucksport, Cumberland, Guilford, Lewiston, Lincoln, Pittsfield, Saco, Sanford and Westbrook.
Communities that applied for certification but didn't get it are Ellsworth, Falmouth, Gorham, Houlton, Kennebunk, Presque Isle, Richmond, Rumford, South Portland and Waterboro.
The review panel provides feedback to all applicants and encourages those that don't get certified to provide more information or address deficiencies and re-apply in the future.
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.
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