Scarborough development, business groups launch economic study
SCARBOROUGH —The best things in life may not all be free, but some think an upcoming economic study and blueprint carried out by volunteers could be one of the best free things to come along for Scarborough's future in a long time.
Beginning in March, the Scarborough Economic Development Corp. and the Scarborough Community Chamber will start meeting with local business leaders and community members to develop an "Economic Development Vision and Plan," SEDCO Assistant Director Julie Bassett said.
"If (the town) paid for it, it would cost between $40,000 and $50,000," she said.
Although Bassett is aware of similar economic plans in a few other towns, such as Westbrook, she said she's never heard of one created by volunteers instead of paid consultants. To prepare for the study, committee members from both organizations examined the Westbrook document, Scarborough's Comprehensive Plan and other documents before drafting questions and formulating an plan of execution, Bassett said. Once the idea was hatched, it was presented it to the Town Council and Town Manager Tom Hall for their approval.
The concept was inspired by a visitation program conducted by the organizations in 2007 and 2008.
"We had things come out of (the visitation program) that we guessed, like certain concerns about signage, and some other things we didn't see coming, such as finding and retaining quality employees, which was perhaps a sign of things to come," Bassett said.
The local chamber has chosen to participate in the plan's development because its members believe it's important for them to be involved in the community on an economic level, chamber President Bob Nadeau said.
"The town's done a great job with the Comprehensive Plan; we're just trying to complement that (with the economic vision)," Nadeau said. "We're trying to get a sense from people in town as to what they'd like to see. It ends up being more of a marketing plan than anything else."
Between 15 and 20 volunteers from the two groups began meeting last fall to prepare for the study. They sent letters to about 150 businesses running the gamut from high-tech firms to farms and from hospitality to home businesses. From now until fall, volunteers will meet with these business owners and with neighborhoods and residents to get a sense of where they want Scarborough to be 20 years from now.
"What I want to find out is what the people in Scarborough want for the future," SEDCO President Harvey Rosenfeld said. "A community shouldn't change by accident - you shouldn't wake up one morning and find your community isn't the one you want to live in."
Rosenfeld said the vision's purpose is to give community leaders direction for future development. Though he conceded there could be some surprises, Rosenfeld said he doesn't expect businesses or residents will say they want the town's commercial base to increase to the level of South Portland or Westbrook's.
In addition to the future economic direction of Scarborough, the groups expect the information will help them support existing businesses and understand better how to attract more of the type they believe the town wants.
Though an article in "U.S. News and World Report" recently ranked Maine as the fourth worst state in which to start a business, Rosenfeld said different rating criteria would put Maine much higher on the list.
"A lot of qualities aren't easily measurable," he said. "We aren't going to stand up well in some areas, but on the other hand, there are some really positive thing about the quality of life here. A lot of pieces make my life better than how much of a percentage of my income I pay in taxes. The other thing is, Maine is faring better than much of the rest of the country in this recession."
When the vision is completed, the groups will present it to the Town Council. Though council Chairman Mike Wood said he was not sure what action might be taken, he said it "could lead to many directions. That might be to add to the Comprehensive Plan or to make changes and amendments."
"From my time on the Planning Board, it seemed we had no lack of interest (from businesses) but you can't presume that now," Wood said. "Now, we have to pretty much put out a welcome mat and in my view, this (vision plan) is an effort toward those ends."