June 27, 2022

Saint John official envisions shared prosperity

BANGOR – Ed Farren has put plenty of miles on his tires this year, as in years past, coming to Maine to motivate state government and businesses to join New Brunswick in its quest to get a piece of the new economy.

Each time, he has traveled Route 9 – “The Airline” – with its twists, turns, potholes and up-again, down-again speed limits. He said he couldn’t understand why the state is “willingly” allowing some communities along the two-lane road to be economically strangled instead of resuscitated.

“They are becoming poorer, poorer, poorer,” said the intergovernmental affairs officer for the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, in an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “And the marketplaces of the world are moving forward.”

Farren makes the drive at least seven times a year in search of his intended, albeit literal, destination – economic prosperity not just for New Brunswick but for all of New England and the Maritime Provinces.

Unfortunately, not many from Maine are traveling to New Brunswick with the same motivation.

How often are Mainers heading northeast?

“Infrequently,” Farren answered. “I’ve seen more people from Maine in New Brunswick the last two to three years than I would have seen in the last 25 years, and it’s only been a trickle.”

Farren wants a regional trade corridor, something organized in a similar fashion to one called Atlantica that was proposed recently by Perry Newman, former director of the Maine International Trade Center. Three New England states – Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire – would join the Maritime Provinces and promote the assets of the entire region instead of each going out on its own to drum up business.

But so far, response from many in the state has been muted. Some businesses and the University of Maine already are taking the initiative to work with counterparts in the provinces, Farren said, but most, including the state government, aren’t as energized.

And New Brunswick isn’t going to wait for Maine to decide when to join in. The province will succeed on its own although the gains would be greater through a cooperative effort, he said.

“We are going to get to market,” Farren said. “We are going to get our goods and services to market. But working together as a region … we can be more prosperous.”

New Brunswick has “invested heavily and still is investing heavily” in improving its roads, telecommunications and education systems, avenues Farren said are important to bring new industry to an area. It’s a “you have to spend money to make money” approach, he said.

Not having the infrastructure or the ability to promote the assets of a region, Farren said, is equivalent to telling an industry that it is not wanted in a state or province.

Maine’s decision not to pursue a four-lane east-west highway connecting New Brunswick to Quebec is stifling growth not only for the Maritimes but also in the state.

“We’ll always rely on the roads through Maine, but the point or issue that always remains is that the neighborhoods we’re always driving through, will they too seize the initiative to be prosperous?” Farren asked. “The speed bumps in the form of poor highways only thwart people who otherwise have an interest in coming into the new economy.”

Recent improvements to Route 9 have not eliminated the problem of uneasy road access to markets in the state and to economic hubs in other Eastern states and in Quebec and Ontario, Farren said.

“The road, even with its improvements, is still more hazardous than I’m used to because the road fishtails in a number of places,” Farren said. “It is surprising to see built-in road hazards [such as hairpin turns]. It’s a 40- to 50-mile-per-hour highway when money moves at the push of a button today. Such an economy is dooming itself for failure.”

New Brunswick will find a way to reach major economic markets regardless of Maine’s reluctance to expand its highway infrastructure, he said.

“The point is always, though, that we will get to market wherever those markets may be in the world,” Farren said. “What does interest us is that our neighbors pick up and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. Until Maine comes to some conclusion on how to do it, somebody else is going to do it.”

New Brunswick is encouraging Maine to take the same initiative the province does, to embrace and expose itself to new ideas and to be innovative in its approach toward growth.

“We can only hold our finger in the dike for so long and then the tide will overcome us,” Farren said.

Saint John, along with Bangor Savings Bank, has asked Gov. Angus King to lead a trade mission to the city in March. Farren said he is hopeful King will attend, along with a number of Maine businesses, to develop the idea of a regional trade corridor while also selling products to companies both in the state and the province.

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