Global Matters: Time for Maine to get in the game

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A few weeks ago I attended a conference of economic development types in San Antonio, Texas. Hundreds of leaders of organizations from across the country dedicated to job creation, business retention and investment attraction gathered to discuss what works and what doesn’t in the highly competitive world of economic development.

You can imagine that, coming out of a nasty recession, there was a lot to share.

It’s interesting to visit with people energized by the challenges of helping their communities to enhance their skill sets, nurture innovation, support anchor industries and generally position their regions for better times.

It’s also interesting to see who shows up.

Granted, budgets are tight these days, particularly if you’re in the public or the nonprofit sectors. Everyone has been ratcheting back on expenses, especially discretionary travel.

Still, I was struck that out of all those hundreds of attendees, not another person from Maine attended the conference.

Let’s agree that there are several qualifiers that inform that last sentence. First of all, this was a conference of the International Economic Development Council. Though it’s a large organization, not every economic development group or professional in the field chooses to join, or to participate in their conferences.

Second, San Antonio is a bit of a hike, and it’s not cheap to get there or to stay there. Having said that, a few folks from Massachusetts made the trip. Ditto Canadians (from Alberta and British Columbia), Michiganders, Minnesotans, Montanans and others from up north.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s a bit remarkable that a Leadership Conference of the nation’s premier economic development organization, dedicated to best practices, case studies and professional exchange, didn’t attract another Maine attendee?

Yes, there are conferences and there are conferences, and I know that budgets are limited, and that choices have to be made. Still, out of hundreds of attendees, including economic development organizations with staffs of one or two people, it’s stunning to me that not a single Maine organization was represented.

I thought the agenda was highly relevant, with sessions on everything from going global to dealing with the media, from organizational development to supporting next-generation leaders, from logistics and infrastructure to workforce development, from defense base conversion to dealing with local elected officials.

So, it was disappointing that not another soul from Maine was there to soak up the knowledge.

I don’t want to read too much into this. The economic development community in Maine is hard working, committed and beyond well-intentioned. I have yet to find one economic developer in our state who doesn’t want the very best for his town, for the businesses in his community, or for Maine in general. I’ve yet to encounter one who has thrown up her hands and said, “well, we can’t compete. I’m outta here.”

But I do think those of us in and around the economic development community need to wake up and smell the coffee.

We may not have big budgets, but there are things we can learn from those who do.

We may not have the resources, the property, or even a culture that supports generous incentives, but we can learn much from those who do (and perhaps even more from those who do not. I heard one executive director describe his organization as “so small that ‘free’ is 75 percent of my budget.”)

We may think we’re the only ones facing tough times and pushing a rope uphill, but we’re not, and we would do well to get with those who are dealing with similar problems and managing to overcome them.

There comes a point where frugality breeds isolation, and isolation can stifle innovation. For all of our vaunted independence and Yankee thrift, the time has long since come to get in the game.

I know, I know. This organization already goes to that conference. That organization already attends this symposium. This group’s leadership is active in that consortium. That group’s board chairwoman is on such and such an advisory council.

I’m just tired of going to conferences that could benefit Maine, and finding myself in a caucus of one. I’m tired of having to explain to people what’s going on in our state.

We can’t learn from others, and we cannot make progress, if we talk only to ourselves.

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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.

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