Quality of life is not enough

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How many times have you heard that Maine’s “quality of place” is our competitive advantage, our unique and unquestioned asset that attracts businesses and creative types who will support and sustain our economy?

Or perhaps you’ve heard it said that our “quality of life” is what sets us apart, that we have what the world wants, that in this global environment investors and business owners will be beating a path towards Maine. This is, after all, the way life should be.

However sincerely we may feel that what we have is extraordinary, I am here to tell you that in the full-contact world of business attraction and economic development, neither quality of place, nor quality of life, is enough.

I’m not saying that life in Maine isn’t fabulous or that there isn’t much to love. Thousands have made the conscious choice to leave other locations and higher salaries behind to settle in Maine.

But there are other places in this country where people love their communities, their schools and their neighborhoods. There are other cities with outdoor access and more temperate climates. There are world-class medical centers in areas vibrant with growth and opportunity. There are quiet college towns with rich cultural assets and educated workforces. There are hotbeds of entrepreneurial activity and lower taxes.

In other words, we don’t have the monopoly on a desirable quality of life, and if you’re trying to convince a business or an investor to set up shop in Maine, you had better know that quality of life is only one piece of the puzzle. Nearly everyone else has a compelling story to tell. We can’t simply assume that just being here or experiencing Maine during one of our three nice seasons is sufficient.

I’ll admit that my outlook was impacted by a recent visit to Texas. For a northerner like me, whose political views are, shall we say, divergent from those of George W. Bush, Texas was something of a tough sell. But what I saw in Houston and Austin was enough to get me thinking – not thinking of relocating, mind you, but thinking that we have a lot of work to do.

No one would put Houston in the same league with Maine when it comes to natural beauty or lifestyle. But if your business needs access to a world-class container port, or needs to be in the thick of one of the world’s great medical centers, or needs proximity to aerospace expertise, Houston is a better choice.

If you prefer a more liberal political environment and need to be near a world-class university, or if you love live music and the creativity that accompanies composition and performance, or if you need a skilled workforce with financial management and software expertise, Austin may right for you.

Houston and Austin have a number of things going for them that we simply don’t. They’re in the thick of larger population centers, i.e., larger local markets for goods and talent. Their cost of living is lower than ours, owing to more abundant real estate, lower energy prices and more favorable tax structures. They’ve benefited from extraordinary philanthropy attributable to the energy industry.

We can’t wave a magic wand and make ourselves more populous, less expensive and wealthier, all in one fell swoop. We can, however, ask ourselves what we want and what we’re willing to do to get it.

I visited Texas with a small group of consultants who advise clients on expansion and relocation strategies. Not a single one of these site location experts asked about taxes – they already knew. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to people who really know and advise companies on these issues.

The things they noted in Texas, however, were the spirit of entrepreneurialism and an atmosphere favoring growth; support for technology and innovation; the extent to which government understands the needs of business; and the extent to which business gives back to the community.

Most of these experts had visited Maine. Some had friends here and would have loved to encourage their clients to consider Maine.

One outspoken participant shook me up, however, when he said flat-out that there’s nobody up here and nobody nearby; that it’s too expensive to produce here and too expensive to ship; and that we haven’t yet figured out that business creates jobs and needs to be welcomed.

Naturally I told him about our extraordinary quality of life. He nodded and then asked, “Anybody making any money up there?”

There’s more to life than money, of course.

But if we don’t recognize that wealth creation is a major motivation for potential employers, we’ll never develop the tools we’ll need to attract them.

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newman-op.jpgPerry 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.