June 27, 2022

Economic development plan gets mixed reviews

FAIRFIELD – Town Manager Paul Blanchette once had high hopes for a regional partnership designed to promote growth.

But his attitude has soured since a business group and a planning agency abruptly announced plans to lead the effort. These days, Blanchette is waiting skeptically for the new partners to work out the details.

“Right now, I have a lot of reservations,” he said Wednesday.

The announcement last month that the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce and Kennebec Valley Council of Governments would join to carry out a strategic plan for greater Waterville has drawn mixed reactions.

Some are waiting to see if two such far-reaching organizations can promote effectively the region’s interests. Others believe those groups, with their experience and extensive contacts, are best suited for the job. Organizers have been meeting weekly to work out the details, in preparation for a formal presentation Jan. 23 at Kennebec Valley Technical College.

David Savage, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said the two groups hope to form an executive board of community officials and business leaders.

They also have discussed hiring an economic developer to act as a liaison between communities and businesses.

“What we’re looking for is a go-to guy,” Savage said Wednesday.

The planning effort initially rose from the ashes of the Mid-State Economic Development Corp., a public-private partnership that died after funding and community support declined.

Last spring, officials in Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield and Oakland began meeting to develop a strategy for growth in a region hit by the loss of mill jobs.

Their plan, unveiled Nov. 2, had proposed a Central Kennebec River Alliance of community officials and business leaders. Members would cooperate to promote business growth, share some services and attract new residents.

But the same night the proposal was unveiled, KVCOG and the Chamber announced their intention to lead the effort. Most of the municipal officials in attendance had little warning.

In the month that has followed, the concept has created conflict.

Oakland Town Manager Michael Roy, involved in the initial effort, believes the two groups should be given a chance. But he concedes that some town councilors disagree.

“The overriding concern, for me, is that Oakland have economic development services available to it,” Roy said Wednesday.

He said the new partnership accomplishes that goal by using existing agencies. “That’s a powerful argument for giving this a chance,” Roy said.

Winslow Town Manager Edward Gagnon, also involved from the start, said he backs both groups but worries the partnership may dilute their effectiveness.

“I think there is a danger of organizations spreading themselves too thin,” he said.

Gagnon favors a revived version of Mid-State Economic Development, with a central board of municipal and business officials. To ensure success, he believes the organization needs firm five-year commitments, which Mid-State lacked.

“You need a greater commitment from the major players,” he said.

In Fairfield, Blanchette’s distrust of the proposed partnership stems from a variety of things, including a dispute with KVCOG.

Earlier this year, Fairfield officials asked the agency to return to the town’s control a small-business loan fund worth nearly $600,000. But the transfer took far longer than expected, leading Blanchette and others to question the agency’s leadership and attention to detail.

“We’re not happy with KVCOG, to begin with,” he said.Blanchette also worries that, with a Chamber of Commerce dominated by Waterville businesses leading the effort, the city’s interests may overshadow those of smaller communities and dampen the spirit of cooperation that carried the effort.

“Without knowing what this animal is going to look like, it’s kind of put us on guard,” Blanchette said.

Savage said he understands such concerns. But he said he believes they ultimately will prove unfounded. Supporters have invited 11 communities in Kennebec, Somerset and Waldo counties to consider joining the effort, striving to make the process as representative as possible.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Savage said.

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