February 28, 2013

Commentary: Making Maine an incubator of new ideas and small companies

By Alan Caron

I have a recurring dream about Maine. It's set in a time just over 10 years from now, after a decade's work to reinvent Maine's economy and make it a hotbed of new ideas, new products and creativity -- and one of the fastest growing economies in America.

In that dream, a young and hopeful entrepreneur is pondering a large map of the country, asking herself where she should go to succeed. She will eventually become her generation's Steve Jobs, growing one of the world's most successful new companies.

She wants to relocate to a place that has a good quality of life and is a fertile place to grow a business. A state that values small startups and risk-takers like her, is friendly and energetic, cares for its communities and environment and values its schools.

She puts her finger on the far upper right corner of that map of America, to a state called Maine, and says, "That is where we should be."

What does Maine need to do, over the next decade, to make that happen? First, we need to decide what we want our next economy to look like. Then we need to put that image at the center of a plan that we can all get behind, and execute that plan with determination.

There have been countless plans produced on how to grow the Maine economy. Most are well-intentioned but lack energy. Rather than inspiring us to new heights, they seem determined to ensure that things don't get worse. The last real plan we had for Maine's next economy was in 2006, when the Brookings Institution was in Maine.

We have some promising initiatives, but not enough cohesion or overall direction. As a result, we've struggled to focus energy and resources in a way that would lead to a more vibrant future.

It is time for a 'business plan' for the state that is bold, practical and achievable. It has to attract the support of rural and urban folks, Democrats and Republicans, businesses, environmentalists and civic leaders. And it has to inspire the public.

If I were the king of Maine, (which clearly beats all other alternatives for getting something done), I'd get everyone together to help shape that plan.

We'd start by honestly assessing our liabilities and assets, without worrying about who gets the blame or the credit. We'd acknowledge the importance of good infrastructure and schools, safe communities and a clean environment, which are the price of admission in a modern economy, without confusing those things with a plan.

Then we'd get to the heart of the matter by asking what it is that we can do better than others and that suits who we are. The answer would start with three things that we do well: We're good hosts, we have a terrific place and we're good at small businesses.

Taking those things together, we'd adopt these goals:

1. To make Maine a leading small business generator in the country and an incubator state for new ideas and new businesses.

2. To update the Maine brand so that we're more than a good place to visit, we're also a great place to start and grow a business.

To execute that plan, we'd mobilize every ounce of the public resources and talent that are currently devoted to economic development. We'd increase co-ordination to create a seamless support structure that would nurture startups and encourage new ideas.

We'd encourage kids from grade school to college to explore not only inventing products and services but also building businesses and growing jobs for others. Not every kid can do that, or wants to, but those that can deserve more preparation and encouragement than we're giving them now.

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