July 20, 2019

Coalition rallies for proposed bonds R&D funds needed for jobs, say leaders

BREWER – Education, industry, biomedical research and political leaders gathered Wednesday to rally support for a pair of bond issues they say will stimulate the economy, create jobs and strengthen communities. The two referendum questions are among the issues Maine voters will face on the June 11 statewide ballot.

The launch of the Maine Economic Growth Coalition’s campaign, held at Z.F. Lemforder Corp.’s recently built logistics facility in the city’s East-West Industrial Park, was one of two held Wednesday. A similar event took place at Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland.

Though research and development investment has risen sharply in Maine in recent years – from $2.5 million in fiscal year 1996 to nearly $40 million in the 2001 fiscal year – the state must do more if it is to compete effectively in today’s technology-based economy, bond proponents said Wednesday. Some see the bonds as a way to keep Maine’s college graduates from having to move away in search of jobs.

Question 1 asks voters to approve borrowing $28.5 million to fund the state’s revolving loan fund for school renovation, install sprinkler systems at dormitories at public schools, renovate a state office building in Augusta, and provide a center for homeless teens in the Portland area.

Question 2, totaling almost $35 million, would fund a range of job-related investments in manufacturing, biomedical research, tourism and economic development activities, including: $5.5 million that will attract matching federal funds for biomedical research and development at five Maine biomedical research institutions; $8 million for business financing programs through which the Finance Authority of Maine will create and retain jobs; $9 million for product development and testing centers at the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine that would help find solutions for manufacturing and engineering problems encountered by Maine entrepreneurs; and $6 million for the Maine Rural Development Authority to use to develop and redevelop commercial and industrial buildings to facilitate job creation.

While Maine currently lags behind most other states and was late in the game when it comes to support for R&D, the investments that have been made have yielded some big results, according to bond proponents.

During the event, University of Maine System President Joseph Westphal and Warren Cook, president of research systems at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, cited a variety of benefits the proceeds of the bonds would bring to Maine.

Westphal, who called the bond questions an unprecedented opportunity to invest in Maine’s future, said the bonds will lead to new jobs and attract federal and corporate R&D dollars, among other things. The additional funds the bonds would generate here would help offset the loss of federal funds, which have been declining for the past several years. In the meantime, the state has had to pick up the ball.

“Other states have those facilities and they play a major role in helping business, industry and entrepreneurs succeed and prosper,” he said, adding that the same can happen here. “… Think of it as a long-term investment in the future of Maine.”

Cook said that several components of Question 2 would make Maine eligible for millions of dollars in federal funds and would spur job creation efforts. He cited some of the benefits resulting from a $7 million investment in biomedical research at the Bar Harbor lab and four other institutions.

“We have created about 200 jobs, training opportunities for hundreds more and, in our first efforts, have brought in about $60 million dollars in federal grants,” he said. In addition, he said, the money generated more than $33 million in construction, which supported 300 jobs in that sector of the economy.

Kevin Kinney, assistant plant manufacturer for the Brewer Lemforder facility, said that while the local work ethic was among the best in the nation, the company spent $40 million for goods and services outside of Maine because they weren’t available locally.

Local support for the initiatives is building. During their meeting Monday night, Brewer city councilors unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the bonds. Brewer Councilor Donna Thornton, the coalition’s treasurer, noted that Orono was among the other area communities that have similarly expressed their support.

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