Global Matters: Cross-border trade? Bangor gets it

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I can’t tell you how many chamber of commerce breakfasts I’ve attended over the years.

Ditto Rotary Club luncheons, “Business After Hours” and networking events in general.

If not for my parsimony at the bar and my iron will around the buffet, I’d be tipping the scales at – a higher number than I currently do. Networking can be a high-impact activity.

Chamber and networking events have a common purpose, of course, aside from testing our caloric resolve. The goal is to put people together in a comfortable setting in which conversation ensues and from which business activity may be generated.

Common purpose aside, however, community business-to-business events reflect the unique communities in which the participating businesses are located. That’s why “Eggs & Issues” in Portland, for example, feels different from similar gatherings in the Lewiston-Auburn area, or events in the Mid-Coast, or those in other, more distant areas of the state.

Not better or worse. Just different.

In fact, that’s what makes these events so agreeable. If you’re like me and you genuinely enjoy chatting with people while balancing coffee, orange juice and a plate of something or other in one hand, community business gatherings are great fun. They’re even more fun after you’ve been in Maine for a while and you have the chance to renew acquaintances, check in with old friends and see how things have changed since the last time you were in town.

Years ago, when I rode the circuit promoting international trade and exports for the state, I spent quite a bit of time in and around Bangor. Even then, area leaders were quick to understand the importance of cross-border trade in particular, and were focused on opportunities with neighboring New Brunswick in a way that those of us in southern Maine were not.

In fact, Bangor and Saint John have long enjoyed formal city-to-city ties. For some time leaders in both communities have articulated a “corridor” concept that serves as a paradigm to encourage more regular business exchanges. Moreover, back in the ’90s, the cities’ cross-border focus was bolstered on a larger scale by a Maine-New Brunswick B2B conference known as “Partnerships.”

Conferences come and conferences go, as budgets and markets wax and wane. But a recent visit to Bangor confirmed for me once again that when it comes to understanding the importance and potential of cross-border business, Bangor gets it.

Last week a delegation of six entrepreneurial companies from Fredericton, Moncton, St. George and Edmunston, N.B., stopped in Bangor as part of a trade mission to Maine organized by the province’s economic development arm, Business New Brunswick. When we approached business leaders in Bangor to explore the potential for networking with the locals, it wasn’t long before the private and the nonprofit sectors came back to us and offered to host a welcoming breakfast gathering.

Within minutes, conversations over coffee morphed into purposeful business card exchanges, which in turn matured into meetings and follow-up efforts taking place even now, after the mission has departed Maine.

It’s important to mention, of course, that Portland got into the act as well. After the delegation left Bangor, dozens of one-on-one meetings took place in southern Maine, as industry associations like the E2Tech Council, TechMaine and the Maine Chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies spread the word. In fact, the New Brunswickers were fully booked here in southern Maine. The visit couldn’t have been much more productive.

But there was something about the feeling in Bangor that was different; it was almost a sense of kinship, and it brought back memories of days when we focused on business not only because of the business, but because of the people.

Folks in Bangor don’t feel the gravitational pull to Boston or New York the way we do in southern Maine. In the Bangor area, New Brunswick license plates and east-west traffic reflect a natural synergy anchored by the Irving companies, McCain Foods, Cianbro Corp., the University of Maine and everything in between.

Bottom line: I’m sure we’ll see more business done between Maine and New Brunswick as a result of this delegation’s visit. It’s good to know that businesses on both sides of the border will be finding ways to prosper together.

But it’s just as good to know that Bangor’s faith in cross-border trade remains undiminished.

We didn’t have to ask the people in Bangor twice. As I said, when it comes to cross-border trade, Bangor gets it.

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council.