U.S. small business czar hopeful about Brunswick Landing

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Karen Mills says her Maine experience pays dividends in D.C.

PORTLAND — The newest member of President Obama’s Cabinet is optimistic about the future of Brunswick Landing, despite the recently failed bid to land a 600-job airplane manufacturing plant. 

“We’ll get the next one,” Karen Mills, chief of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said in an interview Friday. “There will be more competitions and we will win.”

Mills, a Brunswick resident, was in Portland to speak about entrepreneurship to about 200 people at an Eggs & Issues breakfast hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Holiday Inn by The Bay. 

Brunswick Landing, the site of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, recently lost a bid for a small-aircraft manufacturing plant from Kestrel Aircraft. After months of discussion, the company announced last week that it would instead build its aircraft in Superior, Wis.

But Mills said Brunswick could be a competitive location for off-shore U.S. businesses interested in bringing production back to the country.  A federal program, SelectUSA, could help the town bring in those businesses and international companies looking to establish U.S. operations.

“There are a lot of businesses looking for a trained workforce, close-knit community and a quality environment,” she said. “We have a very strong set of assets.”

Small businesses make up half the jobs in the nation and 97 percent of the jobs in Maine, Mills said. She also said small businesses create two-thirds of all new jobs in the country, making them crucial to efforts toward economic recovery.

Because of that importance, Obama last week elevated the Small Business Administration to a cabinet-level agency, making Mills the newest member of the president’s inner circle.

Mills said in Washington she uses the strategies she learned promoting economic development in Maine.

For example, Mills said she promoted the idea of “clusters” during her time as chairwoman of the Maine Council on Competitiveness and the Economy. Clusters are centrally located groups of similar businesses, such as the technology hub in California’s Silicon Valley.

Keeping like businesses together, where they can share information and ideas, promotes growth and success, she said. Before being appointed to head the SBA in 2009, Mills helped create regional clusters in the boat-building and specialty food industries in Maine.

Now, Mills said she has convinced the president to embrace clustering as one means of economic recovery. She said Obama would likely mention clustering during his State of the Union address next week.

“That’s all built on the model that came from my experience here in Maine,” she said. 

Mills said her her first priority as administrator of the SBA is to provide entrepreneurs with access to capital. She said her administration handles about 10 percent of the small-business lending market.

In Maine, that includes the $1 million in federal funds for small-business lending the SBA funneled to the Biddeford-Saco Area Economic Development Corp. 

Since receiving its first disbursement in September 2011, the BSAEDC has made three $200,000 loans to businesses, including one to a new veterinary hospital, Perfect Pets. 

Will Armitage, the development corporation’s director and a Falmouth town councilor, said its the first time his organization has participated in an SBA program, and said the money was a boon for helping small businesses in his area.

“In one situation, we wouldn’t have been able to provide the financing we wanted to without that money,” he said. “It’s been a real success.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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