The Bangor region has a few key economic strengths, and it makes sense for people here to focus on how to grow them — urgently. Given that the important collaborative work of developing promising industries has only happened informally and with varying degrees of success so far, it is incumbent upon these businesses to lead the discussion on how best to grow these vital sectors.
While all business leaders have an important role, the region needs to hear more from those doing the work that brings outside money to the region, namely exporting goods or services out of state. Firms with out-of-state customers are key to the foundation of any healthy regional economy: They tend to pay more, have higher rates of patenting and create demand for local industries, such as health care, education and retail, which employ greater numbers of people.
In addition to being export oriented, these business leaders also should belong to groupings of similar firms in which the region has a competitive advantage over other places — meaning they employ a greater proportion of the region’s workforce than the state and nation — and be seeing rising employment. In the Bangor metropolitan area, the business clusters that most closely match those requirements are forestry support services and the production of metal products. Likely there are related firms that should be involved, too.
As economic development experts know, it is extremely difficult for a place to create industries where there were none before. Instead, they are more likely to evolve out of already existing strengths. Having a concentration of similar, export-focused businesses in a particular area can attract workers with distinctive skillsets, who find an advantage to being in a place with multiple options for employment. It can allow suppliers to grow and specialize and facilitate the spread of knowledge.
That’s why figuring out how to accelerate the growth of industries such as forestry support and metal products in the Bangor region should be a priority. The region can’t do it, however, without the input and leadership of the business executives and workers on the ground.
What are their barriers to growth and barriers to competition? What do they see as their opportunities? Perhaps the region’s available workforce is holding them back, or maybe it’s a lack of research capacity. The region has a major asset in all of its institutions of higher education and should be using them to bolster growth and innovation. The Bangor region shouldn’t just aim to be decent at a particular industry. It should aim to become a national leader in it.
Some might argue that cluster development is akin to picking winners and losers. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposal, however. The region also can foster an environment that supports all businesses. It can invest in emerging industries, build a culture of entrepreneurship and continue its ongoing work to address individual business needs.
But the fact remains that it can also help accelerate promising industries in ways that aren’t heavy handed. Trying to facilitate connections and innovation among like-minded business participants can lead to benefits for everyone. Each regional economy has strengths, and trying to enhance those is a good thing.