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Open for Business: Maine Gov's Biz-Boosting Initiatives Under Scrutiny
08/02/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

As Maine weathers a persistently sluggish economy, Gov. Paul LePage is trying to maximize any opportunity to enhance the state's business profile. Over the last week, his state economic development agency has launched a new Web site designed to guide businesses through Maine's licensing and permitting process. And four more towns have been given the LePage seal of approval as Certified Business-Friendly communities. Some of the governor's critics claim the initiatives are just window dressing, but proponents argue perception is reality in the business world. A.J. Higgins has more.

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To the casual observer, the state Department of Economic and Community Development's launch this week of a new Web site may seem like just another link in a cyber-chain of information available to business owners. But Doug Ray, DECD's communications director, says the site fulfills one of Gov. Paul LePage's long-time objectives.

"Certainly it's been a goal of the LePage administration to reduce the licenses and permits that businesses need to make it in Maine, but obviously there are some that are required," Ray says.

And that's where the new "Business Answers" portal comes in. Simply by typing in a state agency or keyword, businesses will be able to locate all the forms they need to start or expand their business. The new Web site is just another effort to reinforce LePage's message that Maine is "Open for Business."

Still another is the governor's Certified Business-Friendly Community program that expanded to include 24 municipalities with the recent inclusion of Hermon, South Portland, Caribou and Belfast. In meeting a series of criteria identified by the governor and the economic development agency, the communities earn the right to post signs proclaiming their business-friendly status to the world, and hopefully attract some interest from beyond their borders.

Ray says communities benefit from the program, just by going through qualification rounds. "It's a way for a community to self-examine and look at how business-friendly they are," Ray says.

But when national business journals such as Forbes Magazine names Maine the worst state in the country to do business in - for the third year in a row - can small initiatives such as those undertaken by the LePage administration really turn the tide in the state's favor?

"For many people, perception ultimately becomes reality," says state Sen. Andre Cushing, a Hampden Republican and member of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

A businessman himself, Cushing says Maine's business community cannot allow itself to be defined by magazines like Forbes, and he views the Web site launch by DECD as a good way to counter those perceptions, as is LePage's Business Friendly Community program.

"I think, again, this speaks to an attitude that state government in Maine is changing to say, 'We welcome businesses, we also want to help identify the communities that also welcome businesses' - not that all communities to some degree don't," Cushing says. "But there are certain standards that will help to encourage particular businesses to look at locating in their communities."

But some business leaders are not as impressed. Kevin Simowitz represents the Maine Small Business Coalition, a project of the progressive advocacy group, the Maine People's Alliance.

"Well, I haven't yet received a phone call from any of the 3,500 members of the Maine Small Business Coalition that have said, 'What would really help is if we were a Certified Business-Friendly Community - that would really turn things around at my small business,'" Simowitz says. "And maybe it's just that I haven't fielded those calls, but I'm not sure that a label for a city or town actually change the reality on the ground for small business owners."

And Simowitz isn't alone. Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, says that while LePage's DECD initiatives probably won't hurt business in Maine, his lack of action on other initiatives, such as bonding and accepting major investments such as those proposed by Statoil energy of Norway, have actually cost the state jobs.

"Let's look at the facts: Under Gov. LePage, our economy is growing too slowly," Alfond says. "The rest of our New England neighbors have figured out how to get out of the recession, and they're doing it much better than Maine."

Despite the criticisms of one of the state's leading Democrats, a just-released Rasmussen national poll concludes that Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on virtually all economic issues, including issues affecting small business and job creation.

Photo of Gov. LePage: File


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