By Stuart Hedstrom, Piscataquis Observer
Eastern Maine Development Corporation updates its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy every five years using U.S. Economic Development Administration guidelines. The CEDS identifies goals and objectives to guide economic growth and regional resiliency in the four counties served by EMDC.
The new CEDS, which was unveiled during an afternoon Zoom presentation on July 1 identifies five goal areas based on regional priorities and needs — broadband, transportation, climate resilience, workforce and education and business.
“This CEDS process, Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, is both a requirement from EDA Department of Commerce but more importantly something to do every five years that helps us get reminded on what our strengths are and what our resources are and how we make them better,” EMDC President/CEO Lee Umphrey said at the start of the meeting.
He said the plan was developed over three months and was led by EMDC Community Planner Anna Stockman, who he thanked for her work coordinating the flow of information, organizing content and engaging people. Umphrey said a CEDS task force worked with regional stakeholders, municipalities, counties, state departments and congressional and federal entities.
Three months of public meetings, research and planning contributed to CEDS. Umphrey said keynote speakers included Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future Director Hannah Pingree and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
“That was an important element of this because the state had just gone through a 10-year strategic plan,” Umphrey said. “For us to coincide our plan with theirs is essential and having Heather speak was really important.”
He said having Pingree and King speak was also critical, as was the involvement of Maine’s delegation to Washington, D.C. and representatives of state and federal agencies,
“Our resolve was really put to the test [by the pandemic] and I think we passed it with flying colors,” Umphrey said. “The state as a whole, honored public health guidelines and we got through this in a way that was really remarkable and I think the strategy afterward — and I was part of the Governor’s economic recovery committee — is how do we make sure that we work all together with our federal partners, our congressional partners, our community partners to make sure that resources are combined and leveraged so that we can go forward together.
Stockman said EMDC is one of seven such districts in Maine, serving Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Waldo counties.
“After months of gathering input and consulting with regional professionals from a variety of sectors, we are so excited to launch a plan that guides future economic growth and leverages the many assets and opportunities our region has,” she said.
Stockman said in March Johnson provided an overview of the state’s 10-year economic plan and emphasized the importance of regional plans and how these and state plans can support each other. In April Pingree focused on climate resilience and King spoke in late April.
Stockman said the goal of the CEDS task force was to consider the input received at larger stakeholder meetings and brainstorm and finalize the plans, areas, strategies and potential partners for goals set in the final plan. She said the task force met with regional representatives with diverse backgrounds and conducted a business survey in six counties including Aroostook and Washington beyond the EMDC region.
“As you can see, public involvement played a significant role in the CEDS process,” Stockman said.
“Part of what makes a CEDS successful is having broad-based, diverse stakeholder participation,” she said. “So throughout this process we engaged with individuals representing municipalities, counties, state departments and congressional and federal entities. Twelve one-on-one interviews were conducted with individuals from a variety of sectors including transportation, manufacturing, natural resources and tourism.”
The business survey had 211 responses on topics such as regional assets, workforce, COVID-19 pandemic impact and advantages/disadvantages to doing business in the region.
“The regional assessment section describes current economic conditions and trends including population, age distribution, educational attainment, employment, labor force participation and top industries and occupations in the region today and projected in the future,” she said.
“The region is home to nearly 20 percent of the state’s population at close to 263,000 people, 60 percent of which reside in Penobscot County followed by Hancock, Waldo and Piscataquis counties,” Stockman said. “And of the region’s population, 60 percent participate in the labor force which sits just below Maine’s labor force participation rate of 63 percent.”
She pointed out that the region struggles with an aging population and workforce, which mean businesses need to attract existing residents and attract talent from out of state. Stockman said during the pandemic the unemployment rate rose to 5.7 percent — similar to state and national levels — from 5.1 percent.
She said the EMDC region contains 18 percent of Maine’s total jobs and in 2020 the largest industry was health care and social assistance, which employs 19 percent of the region’s workforce. Stockman said that over the next half decade the sector is expected to have highest demand with 10,500 jobs needing to be added to the regional economy.
“Although the region has experienced a decline in manufacturing in recent years due to mill closures, there is projected demand for manufacturing occupation,” she said. “For example as the region implements clean energy alternatives the demand is expected for technicians and positions in construction related to offshore wind and solar.”
There is continual demand for manual occupations like construction and manufacturing, she said, but high demand is projected in health care and educational services that really require more technical and complex skills, Stockman said.
“Fortunately the region’s seven colleges and universities offer curriculums and microcredentials and matching programs that are accessible to the region’s workforce so that they can gain the in-demand skills that they need to participate in the workforce,” she said.
Stockman said leveraging regional partnerships will be key in implementing strategies for long-term economic prosperity and this applies to the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats listed in the document. She said strengths of the region include a high quality of life and outdoor recreation opportunities, while weaknesses lie in broadband access, high energy costs, limited public transportation and aging infrastructure.
Opportunities listed include in-migration, attracting remote workers and clean energy opportunities. Threats are outmigration, broadband access, climate change, an aging workforce and the long-term effects of COVID-19.
“In the state’s least populous county, Piscataquis County, more properties were sold in 2020 than the county has seen since 2007,” Stockman said. “This really goes to show that a high quality of life and opportunities for outdoor recreation are characteristics of where people choose to relocate” with greater emphasis on broadband expansion can attract and retain these workers and their families.”
She said a vision emerged “to improve economic opportunity and increase jobs by strengthening the connectivity and collaboration between communities, businesses and individuals while fostering the region’s long-term sustainability, resilience and prosperity.”
The plan’s goals of broadband, transportation, climate resilience, workforce and education and business are expected to achieve those objectives.
For broadband the goal is to expand access and increase affordability. An EMDC broadband committee will conduct a regional needs assessment, identify gaps and develop strategy for improvement while prioritizing affordability and connectivity.
The transportation goal is to improve and expand existing transportation infrastructure and support port and rail development. This will enhance the movement of people, develop a regional needs assessment and support improvement of roads and bridges and increase public transportation network and infrastructure.
A climate needs assessment will be developed and will support clean energy innovation.
Stockman said collaboration between educational institutions and businesses will be increased through surveys to determine the skills and training businesses seek. Digital literacy of the population will be improved and additions to the workforce will be sought.
The business goal area will be promoting regional assets and funding opportunities and enhancing existing regional business services through initiatives to increase support for businesses.
Stockman said the last section of the plan focuses on economic resilience, “which really encompasses equity, substance use disorder recovery, affordable workforce housing, opportunity zones, economy opportunity response teams and also mill site redevelopment.”
She said by leveraging information the region will be in a better position to minimize weaknesses and mitigate threats to economic growth.
EMDC Board Chairperson and Bangor City Council Chairperson Dan Tremble concluded the meeting by saying, “Take this report, don’t put it on the back shelf, and use it as a blueprint, a roadmap for the next five years. I think we will make significant progress to improve our economy and improve the lives of the people of the counties that we serve.”