Ashley Rand, deputy director of economic development, and Daniel Stevenson, director, head up the new business retention program. Contributed / City of Westbrook

The city’s new Business Retention and Expansion Program, the first of its kind in the state, is up and running with the goal of helping companies of all types and sizes grow and stay in the city, officials say.

Starting a “BR&E” program in Maine has been a passion of his for over a decade, Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson said, and he has high hopes for it.

The city is collecting surveys from business owners, and the economic team is prepping for “hundreds” of in-person visits, he said.

The program will create an interactive database of Westbrook businesses that will allow the city to determine common business challenges and help provide solutions, which could take the form of available grants or other resources.

Common challenges could include workforce training, which Vinnie Caliendo, CFO of Westbrook-based food distributor Native Maine, said the state lacks.

“We have a population surge with tourism 10 times the population of the state. So, in the summer especially, we have a seasonal workforce that is a challenge to staff and train,” Caliendo said. “That isn’t new, this is before me. I would venture most sectors have the same problem.”

Caliendo said Native Maine needs 30%-40% more workers in the summer than during other seasons and has a hard time finding them. He has been working with the state to bring new ideas to the table to increase the workforce, but until now hasn’t seen much progress, he said.

In addition, Caliendo said many of his employees are immigrants who could use additional training, such as ESL, that could help keep them in his workforce.

Stevenson said his hope is to act on exactly those type of issues, using the BR&E database to approach schools or other organizations in both the search for employees and to offer training.

“Once we figure out what a company’s needs are, we will be able to work with our partnering agencies such as Coastal Counties to make the connection to workforce programs that are offered,” said Deputy Economic Development Director Ashley Rand. “Those workforce programs can range from hiring workforce staff, to finding adult education classes to help retain and train existing workforce.”

The nonprofit Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. provides workforce training and development for industries in Cumberland County and five other Maine counties.

BR&E is designed to fill other needs as well, including helping businesses reduce electricity costs, assisting them in securing funding for growth and finding good sites for a business start-ups or relocations.

From there, Stevenson said he hopes to see the program expand beyond the city.

“These issues our businesses are facing are statewide,” he said. “There are so many resources out there but they just aren’t connected at all. As a city, we can now actually know what our business’ needs are and not just guess.”

Stevenson hopes his program will succeed and grow to the point that BR&E becomes a common sight in Maine.

“This is something you see in almost every state, but not here. Many cities elsewhere have a staff dedicated to just this,” he said. “This will be the first modern business program in the state.”

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