November 7, 2010

Maine businesses eager for change, LePage-style

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - However they voted, Maine business owners and industry insiders are eager for Gov.-elect Paul LePage and his administration to take office.

They're hoping LePage will work closely with the business community and remove roadblocks that businesspeople say hinder expansion and job creation.

"We are ready for some changes so we can get some businesses going here," said Charles Gaunce, a staunch LePage supporter and owner of Central Maine Motors Auto Group in Waterville. "We don't have the best reputation outside the state."

"LePage has the opportunity to use his bully pulpit to seek efficiencies all over the place," said Wick Johnson, president of the Augusta machining firm Kennebec Technologies, who supported Libby Mitchell.

LePage ran on a platform of creating smaller, smarter government, which he said will reduce regulatory barriers and help Maine businesses create more jobs. He advocated lower taxes and controlling state spending, and pledged to make the state's health care system more efficient.

LePage reiterated his commitment to business Friday at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Portland Community Chamber. "We will have a different climate in dealing with business. It's going to be, 'You want to put people to work? How can we help you?"' he said.

That's a message that gives chamber members "a sense of relief," said Christopher Hall, the chamber's senior vice president of government relations. For decades, Hall said, the business community has had an adversarial relationship with state government.

Some business owners are encouraged by LePage's business background -- he has been the general manager of Marden's Surplus & Salvage and head of a consulting firm.

"It's a businessperson talking to another businessperson. The small-business community has had very little luck talking to the people in Augusta for the last 10 or 15 years," said Dan Bickford, owner of the heavy equipment rental company Eagle Rental in Waterville.

The LePage victory came just weeks after Forbes magazine ranked Maine last in its "Best States for Business" report, which examined the business environment in all states.

Many businesspeople say complex and overlapping state agency regulations hinder business development. They say small businesses lack the resources to navigate muddled rules.

"The laws are written for Walmart, not small companies," Bickford said. "One law says you can do this, another law says you can't."

Bickford hopes that with Le-Page in charge, agencies will work more closely with small businesses, helping them understand and comply with regulations.

"Instead of code enforcers, we should have code facilitators who say, 'What can we do to help you do business?"' Bickford said. "making things clear and definite, you will see small businesses expand."

Regulations also hinder large-retail expansion, said Curtis Picard, executive director of the 400-member Maine Merchants Association.

For instance, developers planning projects larger than 75,000 square feet must conduct a nine-point project review that examines factors including community impact and traffic patterns. Picard said an unfavorable score on any of the criteria can kill or stall projects, regardless of community support.

"The past few years have been a challenge making sure the voice of business was heard at the State House," Picard said. "Perhaps business issues will now get more focus."

Hall said he expects the LePage administration to re-examine Maine's regulations and compare them to those of other states and the federal government. He said business owners do not seek massive deregulation, but policies that are "normal and accepted and good practice around the country."

Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, called the change in administration an opportunity to educate new legislators about the complexities and challenges of modern farms.

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