June 10, 2012

Bill Nemitz: State's idea of friendly message: You don't make the cut

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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