It is one of 12 to get federal support seen as a potential ‘game changer’ for local food and agriculture.

Further cementing Portland’s reputation as a hub for local-food lovers, the U.S. Department of Commerce chose the city Wednesday as one of a dozen communities to receive federal manufacturing assistance to support its renaissance in food and agriculture.

Portland was accepted into the highly competitive program, known as the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership, along with communities focused on aerospace engineering, energy development and other high-tech manufacturing sectors.

“When you talk about manufacturing, food production doesn’t always immediately come to mind,” said Jay Williams, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. “The fact that Portland recognizes that as a strength and is seeking to leverage that is also very compelling.”

Neal Allen, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which wrote the 30-page federal application with help from various community groups, said the program is “a potential game changer” for the region.

The group’s master plan addresses needs of the Maine food processing industry that stand in the way of its growth, such as a lack of training for workers and insufficient infrastructure. The federal program opens the door to 11 federal agencies and a share of $1.3 billion in federal economic development assistance that can help address those needs.

Portland will have a dedicated government liaison who will help the city navigate available federal resources.

The program doesn’t come with direct funding, but its designation as a “manufacturing community” will give Portland a competitive advantage when it applies for aid.

Among a long list of wants, Portland’s plan calls for building a 100,000-square-foot food warehouse on the waterfront to provide more cold storage, making improvements to the Portland Fish Exchange, and restoring a direct rail connection to the waterfront by extending the Mountain Division rail line, a project that could cost $20 million but would make Maine products more accessible to the rest of the country and the world.

The plan would also expand programs that train workers in food safety, meat cutting and aquaculture.

“Our understanding is there aren’t enough food inspectors out there, so that some product is wasted as a result,” Allen said. “And what kind of workforce requirements will the industry need in the coming years?”

Portland’s plan has several broad goals:

n Scale up 50 home-based enterprises to food manufacturing operations.

n Find markets for 20 percent of raw food that is now wasted.

n Of the food now shipped out of state for processing, keep 10 percent here to become value-added food products.

n Increase global markets for Maine food by 25 percent.

n Replace $100 million in food imported by Maine households, restaurants and institutions with local food.

Although the plan would benefit Portland, its reach would extend far beyond the city, to Aroostook County farmers and the hundreds of Maine entrepreneurs who run licensed food businesses from their homes and barns.

“This is a big deal because it focuses on all of the infrastructure, including manufacturing, that supports farmers in Maine,” said Mark Hews of the Maine Society of Sustainable Agriculture, a partner on the application.

Hews said his group is pursuing two initiatives that would benefit from the program. One is a year-round project that promotes the use of advanced composite materials with solar and greenhouse technology to create year-round growing structures. The other, known as More Maine Meat, is aimed at increasing the production of red meat for both Maine and New England.

As society shifted toward industrial agriculture, Hews noted, many of the associated businesses that supported food production went away – businesses such as equipment dealers and fertilizer suppliers.

“We have a chance, with this, I think, to get a critical mass again of mid-sized farms in Maine that can support a more robust agriculture infrastructure,” he said.

The federal program is designed to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing in communities by supporting long-term strategies that catch the eye of investors and increase international trade and exports.

“When private investors recognize these communities as having a strong economic plan, of having stakeholders who are aligned along a common vision, that will hopefully make those communities that much more appealing and that much more competitive for private investment,” said Williams, the assistant secretary of commerce.

Given the amount of competition, Williams said, “Portland should be proud” to be chosen for the program. His office will convene all 70 applicants to share ideas later this year.

Other communities that won spots in the program were Southwest Alabama; Southern California; Northwest Georgia; the Chicago metro region; South Kansas; Southeastern Michigan; the New York Fingerlakes; the Southwestern Ohio Aerospace region; the Tennessee Valley; Puget Sound in Washington; and Milwaukee.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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