Maine Governor Baldacci signs the executive order creating the advisory council as Karen Mills, chair of the council, stands by. Photo by Ramona du Houx

February/March 2007

By Ramona du Houx

Throughout history, periods of economic transition have had dramatic impacts upon society. Maine once was referred to as the “wood capital of the world.” Boat builders came from far and wide to buy Maine wood. When steel took over, the industrial revolution transformed the boatbuilding industry in Maine and industries all over the world. Companies flexible and ready to embrace change survived. New companies emerged. Some died out.

Maine is at the crossroads of change again. With information technology making it feasible for companies to locate anywhere they choose in the global economy, new opportunities are opening up for Maine. Being a rural state may become an advantage, because with it, in Maine, comes a quality of life.

“Maine is poised for an era of sustainable prosperity,” said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute. Last November Brookings published a report, “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places” that was commissioned by GrowSmart. The comprehensive document recommends savings and investments that would propel Maine’s economy forward.

During the last four years, Governor Baldacci set the foundation for Maine to transition into the global economy. He laid the groundwork when he established community colleges and PTZ economic zones that offer business tax incentives; he increased investment in research and development, started the ConnectME authority — which is improving information technology access — and he worked to sustain our natural resources for future generations.

“A lot’s been done, but a lot needs to be done,” said Baldacci. “We have come far but must take the next steps to provide for opportunity in the years to come. The Brookings report has offered us a roadmap to get there. The time is now for us to take action.”

Accordingly, last December Governor Baldacci announced the creation of a fifteen member advisory group – The Council on Jobs, Innovation and the Economy.

The group is charged with developing an action plan for moving the state forward on the innovation-focused and cluster development activities that will define the state’s investment strategies.

Areas of growth where economic activity has increased in Maine have created new clusters where the state intends to help facilitate growth. These clusters are interconnected companies and institutions — from manufacturers to suppliers to universities and to government agencies — that enjoy unusual competitive success in a particular field. In the nation, Silicon Valley is a prime example. In Maine, the financial sector leads the list.

An interesting development within the last few years is making Maine boat building an important cluster, and now the industry is utilizing a $15 million WIRED grant for composite research and Maine boat building.

“I worked for a year on the WIRED grant. I went all across the state with GrowSmart for the Brookings report to find out how we can grow this economy,” said Karen Gordon Mills, who chairs the advisory panel. Mills is the managing director of Solera, LLC, a venture capital fund. Solera Capital is a private equity investment firm that typically invests between $10 million and $40 million in its target companies.

“There are enormous opportunities in this state. Maine has the potential to build on its core strengths in a number of growing sectors and create world competitive businesses and jobs. The groundwork has been laid — now the work begins to make it happen,” said Mills.

“My world is all about taking innovative companies and making them world-class competitive companies. As I traveled around the state, I became quite energized listening to businesses and people at forums. I realized that I have the experience that could help Maine’s economy. I could give back to this place that has given our family a wonderful home. That’s why I’m doing this. This is a real moment where we can make a difference in the Maine economy. It’s an exciting time.”

Baldacci said the state needs to increase investments in research and development, to expand access to higher education, and to bolster job-training opportunities.

“Maine will focus its resources on investments in promising sectors, which will drive future growth,” said Governor Baldacci. “This group will utilize the expertise needed to grow the economy further. Until everyone everywhere finds opportunity, our job is not done.”

The council’s action plan — which will have specific recommendations the governor intends to take to the Legislature to implement — is due out in February.