Friday, January 22, 2010

The Entrepreneurial Option

During tough economic times, innovation doesn’t take a vacation. True entrepreneurs are able to locate opportunities that others requiring safety and securing would never consider. The flipside of this is that during periods of economic vitality, money can often hide problems, and even obscure opportunities.

This past Tuesday, the Lewiston CareerCenter hosted yet another monthly Industry Information Tuesday. As has been our format for the past several months, an energetic and experienced panel was recruited, with the topic being, pursuing self-employment, entrepreneurship, and the pros and cons of starting your own business.

Panelists included an enthusiastic and successful local businessperson, Patti Gagne, of the Patti Gagne Agency, Inc., affiliated with Allstate Insurance, as well as Dante Vespignani, from The Entrepreneur’s Source, a business and franchise coach with a wealth of business and franchise experience. Another innovative local small businessperson, Barbara Lauze, spoke about the challenges and rewards of her home-based business, The Basket Case, which specializes in creative gift-giving solutions.

Rounding out our panel were two experienced business counselors, Rose Kreps, from AVCOG, who provides business services out of the agency’s Small Business Development Center, and John Sinclair, from Costal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), another business resource similar to AVCOG/SBDC, providing one-on-one business consultation that’s tailored to meet the needs of the business owner, as well as training and workshops offered on a range of business issues.

A discussion about the qualities inherent in entrpreneurs--desire, positivity, commitment, patience and persistence--dovetailed nicely with an amazing resevoir of real life experiences represented by the members of our panel.

The 20 individuals attending, interested in exploring their options, got a chance to talk about their business ideas, ask questions, and hear about the realities faced in starting a business or accessing a franchise opportunity, and requirements and steps that entrepreneurs and small business people take to ensure success.

The Lewiston CareerCenter hosts Industry Information Tuesdays every month. The next one will be February 23 and focused on opportunities in construction.

For more information about how you can participate in one of these Tuesday events, contact the Lewiston CareerCenter at 753-9001.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading the tea leaves with Charlie

Attending Charlie Colgan’s annual prognostications at various venues across the state have become one of Maine’s mid-winter rituals for many leaders, both on the private and public side of things. Once again, Colgan was in Lewiston-Auburn for the Androscoggin County Chamber's January meeting, delivering “At the Edge of the Woods: The Great Recession and Beyond.”

Its interesting that one economist would develop such a devoted statewide following, not because economists aren’t well versed in their respective field of study, but because the general public rarely takes much interest in things like leading indicators, risk studies, and anything that smacks of science.

Colgan has managed to package his forecasts, some of them quite dire, by delivering them in his characteristically dry, but humorous way. And Chamber groups and other a audiences eat them up as eagerly as the high cholesterol breakfasts that are standard fare at these early morning business soirees.

In brief, bulleted form, here is the gist of Colgan’s forecast from this morning’s breakfast. This may be one of the quickest releases of that data you’ll find. For more on his talk, you will no doubt want to tune into this evening’s six o’clock news, and read about one of his many appearances in your local daily. Tomorrow’s Sun Journal will surely have it in narrative form.

  • Are we out of the recession?
    --partly; Maine’s economy is growing in output, but a full recovery is a few months away.
  • When will unemployment improve?
    --job growth will resume mid-year; the growth will be there, but it will be weak.
  • How long will it take to recover?
    --one year on the GDP side.
    --two to three years on jobs.
  • What are the risks of Colgan’s forecast?
    --50:50, he said meaning the odds are equal that he overshot, and consequently that the potential is that he is being overly pessimistic.

A few additional items from Colgan’s talk this morning:

  • Coincident indicators are flat.
  • Leading indicators are pointing upwards.
  • The financial crisis has stabilized.

Job growth sectors for Maine?

  • Education/health (Colgan said “this means healthcare.”)
  • Business and professional services
  • Leisure and hospitality

Other concerns:

The decade of the “naughts” put the brakes on over 50 years of decade by decade growth in jobs. For the decade 2000-2009, there was zero growth.

Colgan closed with an interesting observation, diverging from raw data and information, something most economists rarely do.

He referenced a book that is now over 25 years old, Lester Thoreau’s The Zero Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities of Economic Change.

Written during a period of acute economic stagnation in 1980, this bestseller discusses the human implications of economic problem solving and offers a classic set of recommendations about the best way to balance government stewardship of the economy and the free-market aspirations of upwardly mobile Americans.

Basically, Thoreau’s zero-sum premise states that for every positive economic gain that I might realize, someone consequently loses. Benefits must come from somewhere, as the economic pie is static.

I took Colgan’s implication of this to be that while the economic data (impersonal and based on set mechanisms, like supply and demand) points to recovery at some point, the human equation, and he mentioned politics, is rooted in the personal.

The idea of zero-sum loss, which is basically pessimistic in outlook, is affecting America in a way that is uncoupled from the economy. Colgan mentioned healthcare reform—initially, Americans supported it, but because of political efforts mainly from the right (my analysis), the polls now show that Americans believe that healthcare gains for some, will be taken from others.

Colgan wrapped up by saying that Maine’s economic future is based on Green and Blue; wood chips, wind, energy efficiency. The state’s prosperity is tied to our potential to be an environmental leader. This requires some profound changes in the way policy is made. It also requires sacrifices by all—potentially in a combination of both taxes and program cuts. I also think, and Colgan alluded to this—personal transformation.

Personally, I think we all need to look closely at our own values. Are we willing to do what’s necessary to move Maine forward? Transformation of a personal nature, something I’m familiar with, is something that we all need to consider.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Jackman, or bust

Nearly three years ago now, just after I started in my position with the LWIB, I was part of a discussion about economic development, and someone used the term, "the two Maines." While this phrase has become popularized by some, and periodically, you'll read an article in a Maine-based publication referring to this sense that Maine is split in two--namely north/south; with the state's economically viable (southern sections south of Bangor) corridor, and the rural regions, anything north and east/west of I-95--it more often than not indicates to me an apparent lack of understanding about the geographic, demographic, and economic realities of the state. At the very least, it's an oversimplication of Maine, and shows a lack of creativity.

At that same meeting, a DECD representative was in attendance, a gentleman I have developed a fondness and respect for, partly for his self-deprecating sense of humor, but mainly because of his wisdom that comes from his length of service working in the trenches of econonomic development. He calls himself a "dinosaur" and he bears the scars of one who has managed to maintain a relevance that's allowed him to serve in the current administration, and also during the King administration. I'd affectionately call him a grizzled veteran.

When queried about "the two Maines," he indicated that if this was the case, then his job would be an easy one. Instead, in his estimation, Maine was in reality, 16, or 18 seperate entities, all with their own inherent unique characteristics, local cultures, and economic challenges. This has stayed with me ever since, and validates much of what I've come to know about my home state.

I thought about this idea again last Wednesday, when I made the long drive north of Skowhegan, to Jackman. I had been invited to speak before the Jackman Community Leadership Group.

The trip had been arranged by a colleague and community partner, Dana Hamilton, who serves with me as a member of the Somerset Workforce Development Team (SWDT), a standing group that meets monthly, primarily in Skowhegan. This group, focused on workforce/econonomic development for all of Somerset County, has shut out other communities in Somerset, by unintentionally becoming centered mainly on Skowhegan, and to a lesser extent, Pittsfield and Madison.

My colleague chided our group back in October by saying that "Somerset County is more than just Skowhegan." This resonated with me. She challenged our group to think about holding meetings elsewhere, particularly in some of the smaller communities to the north, like Bingham, and Jackman. It's so easy, regardless of where we live and work, to become parochial, fixated on only our tiny little corner.

Workforce development, and I think, economic development, at least in a state like Maine, is really a regional affair. It's difficult to mandate statewide policies that will work well in both economically robust Portland, and even Cumberland County, and in economically challenged counties like Somerset, Washington, and Oxford to name just three. Yet, more often than not, when policy is discussed, at least by this current administration, and now, by the ever-expanding field of candidates running for governor, one-size-fits-all pronouncements continue to be made.

The best part of my visit to Jackman last week is that is helped me have a much better understanding of the issues as they are on the ground. Rooting what I do in reality informs me in the work that I do, and helps me to be as effective as possible in my position. It also prevents me from becoming someone detached, yet thinks that he knows all the answers. These kind of people often offer "solutions" to people in rural regions that prefer partners and people willing to collaborate, not government "experts" riding in on their white horses with yet another solution to their problems.

That seems to me to be what school consolidation has turned out to be for many rural school districts. What began in theory as a way to shave administrative costs, has visited major challenges on rural districts, like MSAD #12, in Jackman.

As I mentioned during my talk in Jackman, "if someone wanted to create a policy designed to destroy what vitality and hope remains in Maine's rural outposts, they couldn't have come up with anything better than school consolidation." While this might not be received happily by the current administration in power, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that understands life in Maine's small communities to disagree with that statement.

The Jackman Community Leadership Team holds their monthly meetings at The Fours Seasons Restaurant. Prior to the meeting, Dana and I had a wonderful lunch and conversation with Heather Perry, superintendent of schools in Jackman and Greenville, Denise Plante, assistant superintendent in Jackman and principal at Forest Hills School, and Steve Banahan, a manager at one of the region's major employers, Moose River Lumber Company. The enthusiasm that these community leaders expressed about the town and region at large, as well as some of the exciting things going on with students at the school, and the innovative qualities of the Moose River mill was a much different message than some would have anticipated.

In reality, I have found the spirits and community health of rural Mainers, and by extension, economic possibilities in rural America, to be much more hopeful than are often portrayed major media types that rarely, if ever take the time to understand the culture of these areas. I tackled this subject some time ago in relation to a national story done by NPR on Skowhegan.

Because of my visit to Jackman, and given the technology that exists to conference in members of the Community Leadership Team, we now have a goal to start forging stronger ties between our work with the SWDT and the initiatives that are already underway in Jackman.

To do this will require a willingness to periodically take our meetings outside of Skowhegan, and possibly meet at a minimum of two to three times each year in Jackman, or other communities in the Moose River region. More to come on this.

To learn more about issues connected to rural school districts, like the one in Jackman, I'd suggest the website of The Rural School and Communty Trust. Their report, Why Rural Matters in 2009 is worth reviewing for anyone that cares about keeping rural schools healthy and vibrant, and by extension, the communities where those schools are the central focus of local life.