January 31, 2013

Six communities forging no-poaching pact

They want to work jointly to attract new businesses without fear of losing one to a neighboring town.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Six communities in Greater Portland are considering a formal agreement not to poach each other's businesses.

Under the terms of the pact, if a business in one of the communities contacted another one about relocating and did not specifically ask for confidentiality, that community would have to inform the host community about the inquiry.

The policy would formalize a handshake agreement made four years ago when economic development officials from Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Scarborough began working together to attract businesses to the region.

Those communities, along with Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, have since incorporated as the Greater Portland Economic Development Corp.

"This is something that has been building for some time," said Tom Turner, executive director of the economic development corporation. "It's hard to work together if everyone is fearful someone is behind your back trying to poach your industries."

Officials say the agreement is not a response to any specific events, including rumors last year that WEX, formerly Wright Express, was looking to move from South Portland to Portland.

The economic development director in South Portland suspected that Portland was recruiting the company, which employs more than 600 people in Maine. But Portland officials say the city has never directly solicited that business.

WEX has not made any announcement about its future plans. A company spokeswoman did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Officials involved in the regional collaboration also said the agreement is not a response to development plans that will put new office space on the market in Portland.

Plans for The Forefront at Thompson's Point, a $105 million hotel, office and arena complex where WEX is rumored to be looking, include two office buildings.

J.B. Brown & Sons plans to build a four- or five-story waterfront office building on west Commercial Street as soon as it secures tenants.

And the city is looking for businesses to occupy a technology park being built on Rand Road, near the Maine Turnpike and Westbrook.

Instead of focusing on local turf wars, officials are focusing on marketing the region as a whole, said Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall, with member communities trying to capitalize on each other's strengths, especially Portland's reputation as a livable city.

"We can't have silos anymore, and think we can compete on the global stage," Hall said.

Officials could not readily provide examples of poaching, though they said there have been instances when larger companies such as Idexx, Fairchild Semiconductor and WEX have explored their options, promoting solicitations from other communities.

"Those are just the most recent examples," Hall said. "We can accurately predict that will happen again."

Scarborough, Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth have already adopted the plan. South Portland, Portland and Falmouth are expected to take it up in the coming weeks.

South Portland's Economic Development Committee will take it up next week, said City Manager Jim Gailey.

The Portland City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee will do the same in February.

Each will send recommendations to its respective council.

The Falmouth Town Council referred the pact to its Economic Development Improvement Committee for further review two months ago. Town Manager Nathan Poore said the seven-member group of residents requested changes to the text.

While the group supported the non-poaching clause in terms of relocations, it wanted the ability to approach businesses that have publicly signaled an intent to expand.

Poore said the regional development group rejected the changes, so the council will take up the original pact in February.

While the proposed agreement addresses poaching and calls for a process for member communities to compete for any business that moves into the region, it is silent on the role of tax incentives.

While communities would agree not to solicit any business in another member community, nothing would prohibit a community from granting tax increment financing to a business that's intent on moving there.

Turner, director of the economic development corporation, said the agreement would level the playing field for communities and discourage a "zero sum game" of poaching.

To some, it's simply the ethical and responsible thing to do.

William Baker, Westbrook's assistant city administrator, who specializes in business outreach, said, "Any game worth winning is worth winning fairly."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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