Picture yourself in a room with 19 other people, none of whom you know.
Of the 19, nine have little name tags on their lapels that say “certified friendly.” The other 10 … how do I put this tactfully … don’t.
Your job is to mingle.
But with whom? Do you head for the certified crowd and steer clear of those less-than-friendly types?
Before you answer that, consider another question: Where did those “certified friendly” tags come from in the first place?
Welcome to Maine’s new “certified business friendly” program, brought to us by Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Where your hometown is judged not by a walk down Main Street, but by a committee of LePage appointees huddled in a meeting room in Augusta.
“None of this should be taken personally,” insisted department spokesman Doug Ray in an interview Friday. “This is not a competition.”
Fair enough. Let’s just call it the LePage administration’s land of unintended consequences, where they can’t seem to pat one group of cities and towns on the back without slapping another group upside the head.
The good news is that nine Maine communities — Augusta, Bath, Biddeford, Brewer, Bucksport, Guilford, Lincoln, Saco and Sanford — soon will bask in the glory of a state-funded sign at the edge of town alerting visitors that they’ve just crossed into a municipality that is “certified business friendly.”
The not-so-good news is that 10 other communities that applied for the program — Cumberland, Falmouth, Gorham, Houlton, Kennebunk, Pittsfield, Presque Isle, Rumford, South Portland and Waterboro — are … umm … not considered sign worthy.
“I think it’s more bizarre than unfortunate,” observed Tom Ursia, the town planner in Waterboro, when asked Friday how it felt to finish second-to-last among the 19 entrants.
“Waterboro,” added Ursia, “is an incredibly business-friendly community.”
It all started earlier this year when the Department of Economic and Community Development invited each and every one of Maine’s 400-plus municipalities to apply for business-friendly status — meaning they’d get a certificate from the governor good for two years, recognition on the department’s website and, last but not least, that snazzy, 24- by 60-inch sign on the primary road into town.
The vast majority of Maine’s municipalities took a look at the seven-page application and promptly moved on to more pressing matters.
As for the 19 communities that did apply, let’s just say this wasn’t the most transparent of processes.
The applications, laden with supporting documentation, were first reviewed by a seven-member committee that included Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais, department staffer Andrea Smith, LePage senior adviser John Butera, Chris Steele of CWS Consulting Group, Chuck Graceffa of Pierce Atwood, Peter DelGreco of Maine & Co., and Amy Downing of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Committee members individually scored each application on criteria ranging from “customer service” to “licensing and permitting.” In addition, each committee member attached a “Y” for yes, “N” for no or “M” for maybe to each applicant.
So far so good. The cumulative scores put Augusta and Brewer at the top with 631 and 620 points, respectively, all the way down to Waterboro with 485 points and Houlton, dead last, with 457.
Here’s where things get cloudy. According to Ray, the score sheets “were kind of used as a starting point to initiate the discussion. It was by no means a determining factor.”
Rather, he said, the committee worked toward a “consensus’ on which communities were in fact business friendly and, alas, which weren’t.
To be fair, the eight communities that scored the highest all made the final cut.
But Gorham, which scored in ninth place, was mysteriously bumped by Sanford, which scored 14th.
“I would have thought that if every application met the standard, every application would get it,” said Gorham Town Manager David Cole upon learning Friday of his town’s backslide. The problem, Cole added, is “it’s not clear what the standard is.”
Nor is it clear why the committee chose only nine communities — according to Ray, there was no set quota going into the process.
“Those were the only ones they felt at the time could be certified,” Ray explained.
(Ray also said it was nothing more than coincidence that the four applicants from prosperous Cumberland County — Gorham, South Portland, Cumberland and Falmouth — all failed to make the cut.)
Interviews last week with officials from six communities that applied for certification (two were successful, four weren’t) revealed three common themes:
• First, the program’s principal benefit to a community is that it encourages municipal officials to take a comprehensive look at what they’re doing (and what they’re not) to cultivate economic development and foster good relations with the local business community. Which, most of them asserted, they were already doing long before the certification program came along.
• Second, the “certified business friendly” sign — the state’s one tangible reward for a successful application — is considered more window dressing than economic magnet.
“I don’t think it will hurt any,” observed David Milan, economic development director for business-friendly Bucksport. “But I truly don’t believe somebody’s going to drive down the road, see the sign and say, ‘Oh my God, they’re a business-friendly community! This is where I need to be!’ “
• Finally, most of those interviewed were under the impression that by winning certification, their community would qualify for “bonus points” in Maine’s hotly contested annual competition for Community Development Block Grants.
Or not. According to Ray, there currently is “no financial tie to this at all.” While bonus points might be awarded in future years, he said, the rules for the block grants must first be changed and approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
So, if it all comes down to a certificate and a sign, what exactly is the point of all this certification business?
“From the beginning, I was kind of bewildered by the governor’s approach, which is basically pitting towns against one another,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.
Brennan decided to pass on the program after the state nixed a request that Portland and five surrounding communities be allowed to apply as a regional unit.
Considering how Cumberland, Falmouth, South Portland and Gorham fared individually, Brennan added, he’s now relieved Portland stayed out of it.
“Why would you want to designate any community in your state as a business-unfriendly or loser community?” Brennan asked.
Now hold on there, Mr. Mayor. They assure us this isn’t a competition — there are no losers here.
“So if you don’t get the designation, what does that make you?” Brennan countered.
Ticked off, for starters.
Muttered one of the also-rans who asked not to be identified: “To hell with them. I’m going to go out and make my own damn sign.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: