In Millinocket and Bucksport, recent paper mill shutdowns confirm the continuing demise of Maine’s traditional industries, as workers employed for decades, indeed generations, lose their jobs with little hope that they will be replaced. Yet responses from across the political spectrum that universally bemoan the problem offer no practical short-term solutions to this crisis.

As both a small-business consultant and executive for over four decades, I believe that business must play a primary role in addressing this sad state of affairs, with government and nonprofits in supporting roles.

A linchpin of past American business success was being from a community and being committed to that community. In 1975 I arrived in Maine to work as director of merchandising at one of Maine’s best-known local businesses – L.L. Bean. For several years I signed every purchase order, almost all for products made in the U.S., many from right here in Maine.

I visited factories in Kinston, North Carolina (where the beloved chamois shirts were made), and in Woolrich, Pennsylvania (producers of the classic Buffalo Plaids).

Like Bean, these were local companies, and the managers and owners who lived there were engaged with their communities, conducted business with local suppliers and knew their workers.

The work was not high-paying, and these were far from utopian environments, but there was a confidence in these interlocking community relationships.

When the marketplace drove these jobs overseas, these community commitments, anchored by the factories, also disappeared.

When the paper mills closed, the recommendations from politicians and this paper were predictable: increasing financial support for education; training; cheerleading innovation and entrepreneurship; and investing in research and development.

While each is admirable in its intent, these solutions look too far down the road, require funding that may not exist and ignore the steadily growing jobless population who no longer can participate in one of Maine’s greatest assets: our work ethic.

But all is not lost. To move forward, we must re-commit to local expertise, local purchasing and local employment. While the successful Buy Local movement usually revolves around a single town and is largely a consumer movement, I recommend expanding the concept and calling on businesses to employ more local wood products assemblers, food processors, computer numerically controlled machinists, lab technicians and warehouse and clerical workers.

The Chambers of Commerce are ideally suited to lead this effort, though calling on the chambers to commit themselves to the local concept could raise concerns that this effort would give one member business an advantage over another, or would undercut the diversity of the economy.

I can address both of these concerns. A local business employing local people should have an advantage. And a diverse economy should mean that a business prioritizes the products and services of a neighboring business over cheaper Internet or trade show options. This priority is a purchasing decision, not a selling decision.

The Chamber membership has local businesses that must demonstrate their commitment to “where they live.” If all participate, all will benefit. A local purchase is a win for the buyer, for the seller and for incremental employment, especially where a higher level of education is not required.

Some companies have already implemented a policy of local purchasing. As others join, progress should be tracked, and year-over-year growth should be celebrated at annual meetings as a commitment to the local economy and to local pride.

There is a role for government. Given our political divide, this is a unifying no-brainer.

Here are three things that government can do:

 Develop a user-friendly Made in Maine website for goods and services produced by Maine workers. This should be the first stop in any purchasing decision.

 Require state employees to make the website their first option for purchasing.

 Develop a linked resource to post employment openings for citizens forced into public dependency because of a lack of work.

The problem is not going away. While we keep our fingers crossed that startups and visionary entrepreneurs and an unspecified “Hail Mary” big business transplant with 500 jobs will someday help to solve this nightmare, the business community should stand tall and reaffirm its own history by recommitting to “where they are from.”

— Special to the Press Herald