By Deborah Turcotte Seavey, Of the NEWS Staff
BANGOR — A new report by the former director of the Maine International Trade Center warns that if the state doesn’t change the way it conducts business and politics, the economic prosperity it has experienced in the last couple of years will be lost.
Maine and its approach to economic development may be to blame for a hindrance of growth in the Maritime provinces, suggests Perry Newman in a lengthy thesis called “Atlantica: Re-Mapping Maine for the New Economy.”
Newman, who was MITC’s director for four years, released the paper on the Internet Wednesday. The address is www.atlanticagroup.com.
“While it is at the same time fashionable and commonplace to dismiss the economy of Atlantic Canada and to scoff at efforts to integrate our economy into it, such a skeptical analysis ignores the disruptive role that Maine has played, by virtue of our very geography, in separating eastern Canada from more dynamic economic hubs in Quebec, Montreal and Ontario,” Newman writes.
“In other words, it just may be that the Atlantic provinces are economically disadvantaged precisely because of where Maine sits on the map,” he continues.
Newman, who now is president of Atlantica Group LLC, a business development organization based in Portland, said in a recent interview that the thesis is intended to be a critical yet instrumental guide to reshaping the way Maine’s politicians, economic developers and scholars … think and approach growth issues.
“I’m afraid that in writing this book I am going to make a lot of people uncomfortable,” Newman states.
Newman wants people to look north to Canada, instead of south to Massachusetts and other states, for growth opportunities. Besides looking south and anticipating handouts — that maybe companies will set up shop in Maine — the state and the Maritime provinces should form a regional trade coalition called Atlantica to market themselves as an economic force in the world instead of targeting business efforts at each other. The coalition also would extend across the northern tier of the United States into midwestern Canada.
“Our task, then, must be to build Atlantica, to unite and integrate the best that our region of America and Canada have to offer,” Newman writes. “In doing so we will liberate ourselves and our economic futures from the strictures of an outmoded political paradigm that has limited both Maine’s and eastern Canada’s economic vitality for generations.”
The idea of a Northeast-Atlantic trade corridor is not new, but it has not been presented in such depth, said Dana Connors, president of the Maine Chamber and Business Alliance. In June, the state chamber held a “Beyond Our Borders” conference in Bangor, and representatives from the state and the provinces at that time tossed around the premise of a regional coalition.
“It’s not about each of us, but about us operating as one,” Connors said this week. “I think Perry says it — it’s not a quick fix; it’s one about building relationships and the rest will come. He recognizes the uneasiness and the opportunities. I think it looks reality right in the eye.”
At the Bangor conference, a survey of the region showed that 70 percent of businesses in New Brunswick were “cognizant of opportunity and the potential of doing business in Maine,” said Neville Gilfoy, a publisher at Progress Communications Corp. in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “And 70 percent of Maine [businesses] were entirely unaware of any business opportunities in New Brunswick.”
Newman said he’s in a quandary about how to implement his thesis — should he form a think tank to recognize the issues, discuss them and eventually start implementing solutions, or should he and others jump right in and start making changes now. If they jumped in now, the think tank could be formed later to evaluate what’s occurring and offer suggestions to tinker with what’s being changed, if necessary.
But, he said, there’s a “sense of urgency” for its implementation. Scholars, economic developers and politicians “have got to hustle in the next two to five years” to make changes that will help and not hurt Mainers through the “turbulent economy” that’s likely to face them in coming years, Newman said.
“Approaching the unprecedented, dynamic changes we face armed merely with status quo tools and attitudes will never enable us to emancipate ourselves and our economy from the south-to-north orientation that limits Maine’s — and the region’s — prospects for future expansion,” Newman writes.
“I think, to use an old term, he’s right on the money,” Connors said. “His economic thesis is both a reflection of where we’re at and where we’re headed.”
Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a private organization in Halifax, said this week that he and Newman are in the preliminary stages of forming an Atlantica think tank. Both are discussing cross-border issues and public policies in the hopes of “removing those barriers that restrict us,” he said.
Those issues include investment and the transportation of people and products over the border, Crowley said. The governing jurisdictions along the intercontinental lines are small and sometimes can limit growth, he said, and they need to come together for the common good.
“It sort of divides responsibility and spreads it too thinly,” Crowley said. “Not one accepts responsibility.”
Crowley, who read a draft of Newman’s thesis, said it is to Maine’s and the Maritime’s advantage to aggressively pursue the regional trade coalition.
“I think the question is, is the status quo sustainable?” Crowley said.
Newman said he is ready for the criticism — or the compliments — which may be directed at him for his ideas. But what he said he wants more than accolades or barbs is productive analysis and measurable results.
He also wants people in Maine to start demanding more of those who lead them, and to ask direct questions that get answers and not politico speak.
Too many politicians, Newman said, recite the usual phrases — “‘I’m for fill-in-the-blank. I’ll fight for small business, for education.’ Duh! These things should be like breathing to us.”
That observation comes less than a month before Election Day, and Newman said he wants to shake up the way politicians think and act.
“We must recognize that in order to create a state and a people better positioned to weather the roiling waters of a globalized economy, we need to break down our preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t, what will and what won’t succeed,” Newman writes in his thesis.
It’s not up to any one group to make the changes, and its not any one group that is to blame for Mainers feeling uneasy, he said.
“We have to be careful not to point fingers at anybody,” Newman said. “It’s a larger issue than what anybody has or hasn’t done.”
Only 10 copies of Newman’s thesis were printed before Wednesday’s release on the Internet. Gov. Angus King was among the recipients of the document. Spokesman John Ripley said King has not read Newman’s thesis.
Others who discussed the paper with Newman include Connors; Crowley; former Gov. Ken Curtis, who helped Newman set up his new business; and Tim Woodcock, a lawyer and former mayor of Bangor.
Newman is not unfamiliar with Maine’s economic development policies. He was part of that development as MITC’s director and as the state’s first director of International Trade.
If his ideas in his Atlantica thesis are implemented, Newman’s business consultancy group has a chance to profit.
“My business will do well if the economy does well,” Newman said.