Envisioning Maine’s economic future

One of the interesting results of last week’s meeting about Envision Maine is the question of how Maine should plan it’s economic future. We certainly have some choices to make around the process. We know that the old process of doing things, frankly, just isn’t working. Moreover, as many have written, we face some considerable workforce and population challenges in the coming decades. The largest question to me is where does the push for a strategy come from? A local push? Regional? Statewide? What role do the resources at each level of government play in that strategy push? This was one of the discussion points of the Envision Maine meeting and it go me thinking about some of the very different strategy options for growing the economy in the future.

One option is for some institution to oversee the process of creating a unifying statewide vision of our economic future. Some see the process of creating as one that would bring viewpoints of all Mainers and all regions.

Advocates of this approach see this as a something all Mainers could grasp as we make decisions about our economic growth. One challenge to this approach may be getting all regions of the state seeing value in this vision. To some, a vision could be viewed as yet another plan, one that perhaps lacks the fortitude for doing.

Another strategy might be for the state to pick certain industries, like tourism or the natural resource industry. Then we could pour the vast majority of our statewide economic development dollars into those “winners.” Personally, I consider this the traditional approach to economic development, and one that has less likelihood of success. While we have many smart folks here in Maine, if anyone can successfully predict which industries are going to be winners in the next ten or twenty years, have at it (and then go buy a Megabucks ticket too).

There is also the regional approach, where regions are given space to identify the assets they have and to work within themselves to bolster the efforts that they choose. Some consider this process similar to one called “economic gardening.” While this certainly moves the accountability and work closer to where the action is, but the inequities of different region’s resources may become even more apparent in this approach.

After the discussion last week and some reflection, I am growing fond of a strategy that is a hybrid of sorts, one that considers regional efforts, but also utilizes statewide resources to support growth. I think building a regional approach, a bottom-up approach, is a very effective way to chart our economic future.

For one, I’m certainly not going to be telling people in other parts of the state what they should work on. Not only is that a bit presumptuous, but it’s also a great way to dampen local support for any effort. If the people don’t buy in, then nothing is going to happen.

This approach would mean multiple towns (and maybe counties) working together to identify their existing economic assets and work to strengthen them. This means leaders from both the public and private sectors must work together. This is especially critical when important, yet controversial, topics like regional services, incentives and public investment are discussed.

There is a role for the state in this hybrid effort, too. The state could focus primarily on conditions of growth. For example, the state-led efforts could continually measure the effectiveness of our economic development resources and programs; increase the transparency and predictability in our regulations; invest in the success of the people who run our government and who interact with our job creators every day (giving them the tools, training and support to do their work to support economic growth); they can tell the story of successful companies inside and outside of Maine to all who will listen; use public resources to create funds for innovative approaches to economic growth, reward collaboration between and within regions; drive public and private investment in research and development; collaboratively lead cross-regional projects in areas like infrastructure and workforce development; and use the “bully pulpit” to cheer the economic successes of Maine.

These are just some of my thoughts about the economic future of Maine and how we create an atmosphere of entrepreneurship, startups and growth. Let me know what you are thinking.

Jess Knox

About Jess Knox

Born in Waterville, Jess Knox is a former high-ranking U.S. Small Business Administration official in Washington. Now living in Southern Maine, he is passionate about growing prosperity via entrepreneurship, innovation and startups in Maine. These days he helps companies pursue growth through his firm Olympico Strategies as a consultant and movement-maker. He also co-founded Maine Startup & Create Week