MILLINOCKET – Economic development is a lengthy process that the town’s new development assistance agency wants to begin as soon as possible, one of its directors said Tuesday.
Eastern Maine Development Corp. has occasionally helped Millinocket with such development before in regional initiatives, but its new agreement, which the Town Council voted 4-1 to accept on Thursday, will allow more direct and continuous assistance, said John Holden, EMDC’s director of business services.
“We’ll be working directly with the town manager on connecting with existing businesses in town to assess their needs and maybe help them to expand,” Holden said Tuesday. “A contract like this helps us to work directly with businesses in the community on more detailed, focused projects.
“And we will simply stay out of politics,” he added. “We’ll be very clear, we will reach out to existing businesses there and try to assess who we can help in the future. Economic development is a long-term process and we look forward to helping the community to move forward focused on business development.”
With Councilor Bruce McLean dissenting and Councilor Matthew Polstein absent, councilors picked EMDC to serve on an as-needed basis until June 30, 2008. Eaton Peabody Consulting Group and Mark Bigge were the other applicants.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue and council Chairman Wallace Paul selected the finalist and recommended EMDC to the council. They said EMDC was among the least expensive and offered the most varied and in-depth expertise.
With 42 employees, EMDC is a 40-year-old, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities and all forms of business in Hancock, Knox, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Waldo and Washington counties. Conlogue said Tuesday he hoped to sign the agreement with EMDC within a week. No businesses or projects in town require immediate attention, he said, but that could change.
“You never know,” he said.
McLean had several objections, including not having a chance to review EMDC’s proposal and the other applicants. He wondered how EMDC’s new services to the town would differ from the old and said he saw EMDC’s regional approach as “a weak compromise,” given the council’s hope, expressed in previous meetings, for an economic development agent dedicated solely to Millinocket.
“I am disappointed in the outcome of this effort,” McLean said. “I fully support EMDC, but I will not be voting in favor of this.”
Paul answered that he saw EMDC’s employment as a stopgap measure designed to help Millinocket be economically competitive until November, when a new council will be elected and can formulate a more comprehensive approach to economic development. He implied that until then, further debate over economic development, a subject of intense controversy in town for several years, would be embarrassing.
“This takes care of our chance to capture opportunity in a timely fashion until we can have a substantial conversation about what’s going on,” Paul said.
With requests for proposals, Conlogue typically selects a finalist for the council’s consideration, but since he is a member of EMDC’s board of directors he asked Paul to do an independent review to defray any conflict of interest claims, Conlogue and Paul said.
McLean is the executive director of Magic, the economic development agency serving East Millinocket, Medway and private town businesses. The agency formerly was known as the Millinocket Area Growth and Investment Council, or MAGIC.
MAGIC handled the town’s economic work until councilors opted not to fund MAGIC in the town’s 2007-08 budget.
Millinocket’s funding of MAGIC has been controversial since at least 2004. A small group theorizes that MAGIC was conspiring to depopulate the region and turn it into a tourist haven while seeding East Millinocket and Medway with manufacturing businesses – a charge that MAGIC, pro-MAGIC residents and several businesses have called preposterous.
Other criticisms of MAGIC include that it was too much under the sway of Polstein, one of its founders, who is proposing a $65 million ecotourism resort just outside town lines and that it failed to return enough to Millinocket for what the town allocated. Its funding was limited to $30,000 last November by an Election Day referendum vote of 1,153 to 1,014. Then the council opted in the spring not to fund it at all.
The organization remains in effect but recently changed its name to the lower-case Magic.
Pressure on the council to set an economic direction is powerful. Although there have been some encouraging signs recently, the Katahdin region has yet to fully recover from paper mill layoffs that increased its unemployment rate and forced the decline of the town’s population from just over 8,000 in the 1980s to 5,200 now.
EMDC has several client municipalities, although Holden declined to identify them.