Throughout the campaign season, we have repeatedly heard the assertion that only the private sector creates jobs. While this notion ignores the obvious – that millions of Americans are productively employed as teachers, police officers, nurses, judges, soldiers, sailors and Marines, among other publicly funded occupations – it also misleads the public about the government’s role in private-sector growth. The saying is used to convey the impression that the only way government can benefit the private sector is by getting out of its way.

But you have to question this notion when you look at what’s going on in Biddeford. Private developers are planning to take over the vacant downtown Lincoln Mill building and invest $50 million to convert it into apartments, restaurants and a hotel. The project would create immediate work for contractors and generate permanent jobs, tax revenue and the kind of economic activity that spurs other investment.

This story would seem like a good example of the private sector doing its thing, but the announcement would not have been made if the city of Biddeford had not made a sound investment of its own. The city spent $6.5 million to buy out the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash-to-electricity plant that had been burning garbage delivered in a parade of trucks, giving the neighborhood an odor that didn’t say “luxury hotel.”

The city tried for years to get Maine Energy to have less of a negative impact on the rest of downtown, but in the end, it took the risk of buying the plant and tearing it down.

If they had waited for market forces to work, the new Lincoln Hotel and Lofts project would not be moving forward. The plant was successful enough to ensure that it could have continued to take deliveries of smelly waste for many years to come, limiting the potential of the rest of downtown, including the historic mill building. In this case, it wasn’t the government that needed to get out of the way but a poorly sited private business that was dragging down an important part of the city.

The Biddeford experience shows that it is a mistake to pit government against business as if they were enemies. The reality is that when the two can work together, each doing what they do best, everyone benefits.

Congratulations to Biddeford for having the foresight to see that government spending is not always wasteful. And congratulations to the developers for knowing a good deal when they see it.

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