Two weekends ago, there were two articles of interest to me, delving into economic development in Maine.  I found the first article via Twitter—this involved FirstPark in Oakland, Maine. The second was a featured piece in the print Maine Sunday Telegram, a paper I subscribe to. I’ve been thinking a lot about them ever since.

The former could be labeled a boondoggle, and the latter one, failed policy; I might add that incentives mentioned in the second piece are being perpetuated by the current administration. However, Team LePage gets a free pass in that they aren’t doing anything other than continuing the business as usual machinations of economic development in Maine.

Could someone tell me why shoveling good money after bad is one of the metrics of economic development success? Or better, are there any real measurable outcomes in today’s shifting sands world of economic growth?

With a few exceptions, Maine is ripe with communities employing a full-time “professional” in charge of development.  Yet, it is quite apparent when driving through these places that there’s not much development taking place. Rather, any economic vitality began exiting many communities long ago, when manufacturing and businesses that produced things moved elswhere. Actually, if you really care to follow facts backwards, you’ll see that the economic unwinding leaving us bereft of both practices began more than 30 years ago.

I’ve run across only a few economic developers who had any capacity to look beyond the standard TIF, CBDG, and other economic stimulus funding schemes for growth. Or worse in my opinion—throwing up a big-box store and considering that a crowning achievement for the community. Sadly, most places expect these voodoo moves and hocus pocus from their economic practitioners; if they don’t practice them, then the town elders send them packing.

I’ve stated my position clearly on this blog numerous times; economic models that don’t account for people and the specific places where these two intersect, aren’t worth the price of the paper that TIFs and other development schemes are printed on.

The places in Maine where goods are being produced, and are being bought and consumed by locals (and those in surrounding communities) have functional economies. The others, built on an economic beach sand, have resulted in a hemorrhaging of jobs in exchange for cheap goods to supplant locally-produced items; this is one reason that Maine and many other places are in a hot mess, economically, with no plan forward—at least coming from their economic development gurus.

It continues to amaze me how gullible people are, however. Politicians and others doing their economic bidding persist in rolling out their Ponzi schemes and shell games; meanwhile, the money just keeps rolling in, with taxpayers left holding the bag, long after these snake oil salesmen have moved on to another town, another state, or even another country.

Stop chasing smokestacks.

Stop chasing smokestacks.

The smokestacks in Maine often stand like silent sentries, no longer blanching out smoke along Maine’s rivers, not like they used to anyways. Trading pollution for jobs, a gambit perpetuated by economic developers 30 and 40 years ago and a move on their economic chessboard they’re always comfortable making—is a dead-end and one I’m not willing to support. It’s certainly one of the hands our current governor is happy to play.

There are better models; they’re just not real sexy. They are local, however, and working in many places in our state.

Agriculture is one of them. Spend a little time in and around a place like Portland and I bet you can locate some other models that are local to a fault.

4 thoughts on “Boondoggling

  1. This reminds me of other, subtler boondoggling, and why governments have no business spending any money on private interests. We know the usual practice–big box or call center or whatever says, we’d like to come to your town, but what’s in it for us? And the town offers goodies, tax concessions, free roads, buildings–anything to put the numbers on the scoreboard.

    Now, the easy way to stop that is for the towns to get together, compare notes, and tell the grifter, No. Pay your own way, build your own roads and sewers and electric, your own building and pay your taxes. But in many states in the union (Maine?) lobbyists have slithered around the state house and made it illegal for towns to get together like that.

    The same exists on the national level, with Federal “regulations,” no doubt for our health and safety, we little peons who can’t be trusted, that prohibit states from comparing notes, so when Sam’s heirs shake down Tennessee for a new box, Tennessee isn’t allowed to talk to Kentucky, West Virginia, or Maine for that matter, about whatever deals they might have offered Sam’s locusts.

    It’s always easier to buy off a limited number of legislators than it is to have to blow smoke up the skirt of a whole state. But we are the land of the hustle, big shoulders and all that.

    • You make some really good points about “subtler boondoggling.”

      I was thinking about some of the economic development people I’ve run across over the last six or seven years; one of these “dinosaurs” comes to mind in a city not too far from here. It doesn’t take long tooling around this place to see the fruits of this dinosaur’s failed model of growth and economic development–empty mill buildings, burnt out apartments, and people wandering the streets aimlessly. He’s not the only one culpable for this failed model, either. He’s gotten numerous awards from the local Chamber and other biz booster groups.

      Do you remember our chicken barn history? We’d be chasing the birds around and alternately, getting attacked by them. Eventually these broilers got shipped up the road for processing and then, out across the country. Granted, this wasn’t organic farming, nor were we part of any free range meat production. It did create jobs and finding ways to grow and create value from local food might be one place to start.

      We both know that local Ag is one way to go in creating a better food system that would have economic benefits. There are certainly others that “get it.”

  2. LP brings up an interesting point, that states can’t compare notes when the sons of Sam come knocking. Yet it’s no secret what will happen. Do these towns really think “our big box store will be different.”

    Regarding well-compensated ED’s…well, who invented that profession, anyway? It’s so…80’s. I hope that isn’t the “Back to the Future” you’ve been alluding to over a few past blog posts. I keep hearing the Prince song “Ronnie, talk to Russia…”

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