Heather Johnson, the commissioner of Maine's Department of Economic and Community Development, spoke at the Hilton Garden Inn on Wednesday morning about the state's new strategic economic development plan. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Maine policymakers, business leaders, educators and others have been circling for years around ways to grow Maine’s economy and address some of our persistent workforce and community development challenges. There has been no shortage of ideas or policy roadmaps put forth over the last several administrations — both from within state government and from other experts and partnerships — but a formal, long term and cohesive economic development plan for the entire state has remained elusive.

The announcement from Gov. Janet Mills that her administration will pursue the first such 10-year plan in more than 20 years is a welcome one. It presents a much-needed opportunity for action.

A plan like this is most valuable — perhaps only valuable — when it can actually be used in the long term, and that means it should be formulated in a way that can be trusted and palatable to future leaders on both sides of the aisle.

The push for this plan was not a new one, with the Maine Development Foundation (MDF), University of Maine System, and business groups long calling for legislation to create a nonpartisan 10-year planning effort. That effort, which we’ve supported in the past, envisioned MDF and the Maine Economic Growth Council — an appointed group of business, labor, education, development and policymakers from both parties — as the plan conveneers.

When legislators heard testimony in February on LD 50, a bill that would have put this planning in the hands of the Growth Council, Mills’ Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Heather Johnson, made it clear that the administration wanted to take the lead.

“We need to ensure there is bipartisan wide-ranging involvement and input, and we need to ensure that there is ownership toward the execution of the plan so it doesn’t become another good body of work that isn’t utilized,” she told the Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business.

We’re encouraged that the Mills administration recognizes that some of this work has already been done. We’re similarly encouraged to see a willingness to take ownership of the effort, which makes actual follow-through on the plan more likely.

The biggest drawback of the administration taking the lead on this, as we see it, is the potential that this becomes branded as a Mills plan rather than a nonpartisan plan.

This plan should not only be actionable for Mills and the current Democratic-controlled Legislature; it should transcend party. To be fair, there’s nothing stopping a subsequent administration — Republican or Democratic — from sticking this or any other plan in a drawer and forgetting about it, but the goal should be to create something demonstrably useful that either party can embrace.

Having accountability and ownership of the plan is a good thing. But the Mills team should go to great lengths over the next few months to follow through on its pledge to include a wide range of partners from across the state.

In an interview with the BDN, Johnson hit the right notes in terms of creating a “collaborative network” of various partners in an effort to make the plan as nonpartisan as possible. She stressed that “good ideas are good ideas” and that the effort is “really about a good process.”

Republican House leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham struck a similarly encouraging chord in a separate interview, calling the question of who brings the plan to the table a “non-issue” and stressing that it’s the merits of the plan that will ultimately matter. But she also expressed a level of frustration about the flow of information from the administration, and that’s a frustration the Mills team should work to address by keeping Republican leadership solidly in the loop as this project moves forward.

Rep. Trey Stewart, the assistant Repubilcan House leader and a member of the Economic Growth Council, highlighted existing work that this planning effort could build from, including the Forest Opportunity Roadmap project. Stewart also pointed to the pro-growth policies of former Gov. Paul LePage, calling them a “great template to build off of.”

There’s been a lot of talk — and work — in Maine about economic development and planning up to this point. The Mills administration has an opportunity to take action and connect those existing dots, but it must also take care to foster an inclusive process so that the resulting plan is balanced and durable.

Everyone is saying the right things so far, but as always, it’s the follow through that will matter.