I don’t care what anybody says, we absolutely love business in Maine.
Really, we do.
How else to explain the myriad organizations, agencies, initiatives and encounter groups dedicated to supporting every aspect of entrepreneurship and innovation?
In Portland there’s Start-up Portland, Growing Portland and Creative Portland, along with regional and local chambers of commerce in every surrounding community.
Further north there’s Fusion Bangor, the Action Committee of Fifty, and the Bangor Region Chamber. In the County there’s the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, and in every city and town in between that can afford it there are growth councils, economic development offices, directors, liaisons and ombudsmen, all dedicated to creating environments or conditions in which businesses might flourish, right here in Maine.
Of course, one might argue that the existence of so many organizations speaks more to the challenges businesses face than it reflects a culture that supports growth and investment. But that’s adopting a negative view. I prefer to think that at some level, most Maine people get it. Business is important. We need business.
Well, maybe we get it.
The truth of the matter, unfortunately, is that creating the conditions in which businesses can grow here in Maine is a discouraging endeavor. For every project developer that wants to wean us from fossil fuels and – gasp – make some money in the process, there are communities opposed to wind development.
For every manufacturer that seeks to construct or expand a facility, there are neighbors who object to increased noise and traffic.
For every restaurateur or real estate developer who seeks to establish a new destination or residential community, there are those who object to that particular use of the land or to creating more parking spaces.
You get the idea. We guard our communities, our landscapes and our lifestyle jealously, and we make it pretty difficult to move the needle when it comes to attracting new investment to the state. That seems to be the way we want it; so be it, I guess, the aforementioned business booster organizations notwithstanding.
Still, maybe there’s a way to grow our economy in a more surgical, perhaps more agreeable fashion that doesn’t drain state or local coffers, and that focuses on the kind of growth we can all – most of us, at least – get behind.
Willy Sutton, the famous bank robber, is reported to have said, when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”
So, in the spirit of entirely legal poaching, what if we deputized a group of our best, brightest, most promising and successful business leaders to travel to where the talent is and to descend upon local unsuspecting programmers, code and app developers, engineers, artists and investors, like a SWAT team with an attitude?
What if this SWAT team swooped into, say, Boston, where they hosted a reception to which were invited a hundred targeted guests – young entrepreneurs from Maine who are living in exile in Massachusetts; alumni of our state and private colleges and universities, now in positions of responsibility; CEOs and other senior managers who summer in our state; executives of leading growth companies in industries that fit well with what Maine has to offer?
Tag them and invite them all for some lobstah (the real thing – from Maine) and some fine Maine beer and (I’ll confess a fondness for it) Maine vodka, get them all in a room and impress upon them that it really is possible to run and grow a successful business in Maine. Remind them that the air and the water are clean, that our restaurants are awesome, that homes are affordable, that traffic is, well, something that other people worry about, and that life here is excellent and could be even better if they joined us.
The SWAT team would be a self-funded group, motivated by a desire to attract “knowledge” workers, improve the Maine economy and to show that we are not afraid to go out and get what we want. The SWAT team would define its own mission, its targets and parameters. It could coordinate with others, or go it alone. If the team succeeded, we’d all win. If it failed, we’d be no worse off.
I think we need to do more than support each other locally. We need to get out there and mix it up. We need to show a little moxie, load up the van, and leave those folks in Massachusetts (or Silicon Valley, or Austin) wondering, “What just happened? Who were those guys?”
If we do it right, people won’t think of Maine as a bucolic backwater, and they won’t just think we’re open for business. They’ll think we mean business.
And that just might mean real business.
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. His website is perrybnewman.com.