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Business and Economy

Maine Business Leaders Seek Economic Climate Change

For the past four years, Forbes Magazine has ranked Maine as the worst state to do business.  The Maine Real Estate and Development Association wants to make it the best place. Today in Portland, the group gathered about 300 leaders from the public and private sectors to hash out what's working - and what's not.  

Maine is at the bottom of the Forbes list, and Utah is at the top. To better understand the distance between the two, the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, or MEREDA, invited Alan Hall to their conference.  He's an entrepreneur and business leader from Utah who specializes in boosting local economies.  

He says Maine needs to roll out a welcome mat to businesses by reducing corporate taxes and excessive regulations.

"You have to have regulations and policies that don't inhibit business, that actually make it more facilitated," he said. "I think Maine has got some regulations and bureaucracy that make it challenging for a business."

Hall says the state's workforce is also a place to improve. That's a sentiment shared by John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System.  He says of the 2,100 students enrolled into the Community College System last year directly from high school, more than half were not prepared for college.

"Fifty-four percent needed to take remedial courses - 54 percent!" he said. "From June to September, they were not ready to take college courses.  That is a very serious problem."

What's more, says Fitzsimmons, is that 80 percent of Maine students in remedial courses - at both universities and community colleges - are deficient in math, a critical skill for future jobs.  

Peter DelGreco of Maine and Company, which helps existing businesses expand and out-of-state businesses relocate to Maine, says there's a simple, affordable way the state can improve its business climate: minimize risk.

"There are certain communities that are easy to deal with from a regulatory perspective, that have a plan, that know what they're ready to say yes to," DelGreco said. "And when something comes up that they're ready to say yes to, they can give a response within a really fast time."

Some say that's a problem, not just for individual communities, but for teh entire state:  There's no focused plan to improve business.  Utah's Alan Hall says it will take a partnership between the private sector and government.  But Mike O'Reilly, vice president of MEREDA, is skeptical that Maine lawmakers and the executive branch can achieve that goal.

"You can see there's some divisiveness.  They're hard to work together - we've got  to get folks to work together, and come together on an issue, and let it go after," O'Reilly says.

"I think it has been an issue," says Republican Rep. Amy Volk, who attended the conference as part of the state's Labor, Commerce, and Economic Development Committee.

Volk says the media is partly to blame for failing to report on the good work coming out of the LePage administration.  But she thinks the lawmakers can overcome the partisanship.

"We need to sit people down, and maybe not government officials at first, but maybe people in a grassroots way, sit down and talk about what is working and what's not working," Volk says.

Democratic Rep. Anne Marie Mastraccio, who is also a member of the state's Labor, Commerce, and Economic Committee, says that political instability is a major barrier to economic development.  She says bipartisanship needs to start at the top.  

"I spoke to other legislators who wanted to talk to the governor about their bills, to work on their bills. What can we do to make this a bill that you would support?" Mastraccio says. "No point.  No interest in talking."

Though it's unclear exactly who could or should initiate a statewide plan to improve economic development, MEREDA says it will continue to work on moving Maine up on Forbes' list of good states for business.