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An exit interview with the outgoing head of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce

Dana Connors is about to retire from the presidency of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Maine State Chamber of Commerce
via BDN
Dana Connors is about to retire from the presidency of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Dana Connors is about to retire from the presidency of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

He talked recently with Maine Public's Irwin Gratz about heading the chamber for 29 years along with 11 years as state transportation commissioner and 16 years as city manager of Presque Isle.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gratz: I want to go back to that first public service job: city manager of Presque Isle. What did that teach you about government service and that interplay between government and the private sector?

Connors: Irwin, it probably was the best foundation that anyone could ever have. When you look back and consider in the meantime, you know, the positions I've had, The council had four very visible business people on the council. And truly I made mistakes, I probably made a lot of mistakes, but they never reprimanded you or gave you reason to not try again. As a matter of fact, they actually encouraged you. They said, 'Well, you made a mistake. You learn from your mistakes. And the important thing is don't repeat the mistake.' And that was so foundational, because in the jobs I've had, you do have to assume risk.

Let's talk a little bit about the state's business climate, at least in the last 30 years that you've been watching it closely. How has it changed?

When I came on board in 1994, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. And so energy prices were high. You had the digital economy coming in. And at that time, you had a lot of expectation around the whole technology thing. And we've seen that become so much a part of our life. The key to Maine's economy, and the experiences that we have faced and the challenges that we've endured over the years, is really found in, it's an attitude, a characteristic or a trait. I'm not sure what it is, but it comes from hard work. It comes from struggles, it comes from setbacks that we've all faced in this state. But what is brought with that is a sense of pride that expresses itself in an incredible ingenuity, resilience. And when you think about that, that's Maine. And you look at how workforce today embraces things that we thought of five years ago as social programs: child care, broadband, housing, and we need to put a -- not a higher priority, but a recognition that the new Mainers, those that come to us provide us a tremendous opportunity to help us meet the workforce needs. Another national statistic, the growth in our workforce between 2000 and 2050, 83% of that would come from the immigrant or the immigrant family. We have a significant number in which that represents an opportunity for us.

What are the positives for the Maine economy going forward?

Recognizing that as hard as the pandemic has been, particularly for those who lost lives or dealt with health aspects or their business, out of all of this, those who came to vacation in Maine or those who look to Maine have come to realize we're a safe place, a healthy place, a wonderful place. And with an emphasis on broadband, we realize that we can work from just about everywhere and businesses are, for the most part, very open to allowing that type of work situation to occur. And our population has grown as a result of all that. So I think, to every downside, there is kind of an upside. And I think the pandemic has opened the eyes to how safe, how healthy, how special Maine is. As you can see, I'm a cheerleader.

Are there any things we should worry about?

Oh sure. Yeah, I think that, you know, now we face a situation that we have faced in our past: inflation. Will it become recession? What's the impact of that? And energy is the one that in my opinion, just like we have a strategic plan, we have a climate action plan. I think the state could use an energy plan -- energy because of its costs, because of where we are, and how are we going to deal with this, needs to bring people together to create that path forward.