What the Waldo County Works business tour taught me

By Rep. Erin Herbig | Dec 06, 2017

“You put your nose to the grindstone and you keep it there,” David Flanagan said to me as we sat in his office overlooking Viking Lumber Yard in East Belfast.

With that sentence, David summed up what it means to be a business owner in Maine.

That hard work, willingness to take risks no one else will, and success despite any odds was something I’d see again and again for weeks on my Waldo County Works business tour.

My work to support small businesses and hard working families started long before that meeting at Viking Lumber. It actually started before I ran for office.

I come from five generations of Waldo County poultry farmers. Thirty years ago, Belfast was devastated when our heritage industries collapsed out from under us.

I watched as my friends and family members left for better opportunities out of state.

That story is not unique. It’s happening all across rural Maine.

But it shouldn’t be that way. And, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

I ran for office to keep more young people here, raising their families, working at good-paying jobs and growing Waldo County’s economy from the ground up.

Once I was elected, I worked to support family-owned businesses and their employees by serving as chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee for four years. I currently serve as chairman of the Workforce Development Committee working with the state’s leaders in business, job training, education and policy to expand our shrinking workforce.

As House Majority Leader, I have fought for bills to support towns that have experienced the loss of a major industry or employer, invest in apprenticeship and training programs to improve our workforce and to reward family-friendly businesses.

Those efforts were important, but this year I knew I needed to speak directly to the business owners of Waldo County about the specific challenges we face and how we can work together to find solutions.

They know better than anyone what works, what doesn’t and what more I can do to help them grow and fill more of the good-paying jobs they’re creating across our community.

Over the last month, I’ve visited over 50 businesses, from brewers to solar producers to logging manufacturers.

I’ve met with businesses that have been around for 180 years and some, less than 3 months.

Some of the businesses I visited had only two or three employees; others had over 150. Despite coming from diverse industries and having different stories, every single one seemed to face similar challenges and opportunities in starting out and succeeding in rural Maine.

The first and most important thing they said and showed me at each of their businesses was something I already knew.

Businesses are succeeding in Waldo County. They are creating good-paying jobs and opportunities to build a career.

Despite some doomsday media and negative politicians, there are good things happening in rural Maine that we should all be proud of.

And, I promised to make sure more people know that.

We also talked about the challenges they face and identified ways we can solve them together.

For too long, technical schools and careers have been unfairly stigmatized as fall back plans for students. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Community colleges and technical schools can work with businesses to expand the career goals of their students, train Maine’s new workforce, and offer an alternative to expensive out-of-state schools that take our best and brightest away.

Student debt is not the only financial barrier that keeps young people from living in rural Maine.

I spoke to dozens of new and seasoned employees who had decided to move to, or stay in rural Maine. Hamilton Marine has employees in Searsport who have stayed for decades. Many employees across businesses talked about the quality of life in Waldo County and how proud they were to work here.

They also shared how the cost of childcare, long commutes and a lack of affordable housing are still challenges to making it in Waldo County.

This past session I sponsored bills to provide a tax credit to employees with significant commutes and to create an incentive for businesses to provide on-site child care, but both failed to pass. The conversations I had on the business tour will help me continue to push for better solutions to these common problems in the future.

Beyond the financial difficulties growing families face is a serious challenge to Maine’s public health and safety.

The opiate epidemic, in addition to devastating Maine’s families, is creating insurmountable healthcare costs for small businesses trying to connect their employees to treatment.

We must do a better job of expanding access to affordable health care.

While Maine’s workforce continues to tackle these challenges, businesses are also confronting their own.

There are physical challenges to doing business in Waldo County. Being far from Maine’s markets and traveling over old and failing roads and bridges is a barrier for both Robbins Lumber in Searsmont and the Coastal Café in Searsport, though they couldn't be more different in size or product. One manufactures and ships thousands of pounds of pine boards, the other dozens of loaves of homemade bread. Both are important to Waldo County’s economy.

I also learned about the infrastructure you can’t see, including our internet and energy. I spoke to Sundog Solar and Revision Energy about providing electricity for even the most remote homes in Waldo County. They are innovating and growing at an impressive rate and bringing young Mainers back home to Liberty and Searsport. As Chuck Piper told me, “Mainers want to own their house and own their car. They also want to own their own energy.”

It’s common sense to support our growing renewable energy industry, which creates good-paying jobs and benefits all Maine consumers, including businesses.

And guess what? Young people will move to rural Maine to fill these innovative jobs.

Once we create those innovative jobs, we have to ensure employers have the tools they need to keep them. Waldo County struggles with high-speed internet access in some pockets, which slows the growth of new business.

Innovasea, which is leading ground breaking research and economic development projects both in Morrill and abroad, struggles to video conference with their employees. I know of other businesses who can’t allow employees to work remotely and struggle to advertise for open jobs. Unemployed Mainers also need the internet to apply for open positions throughout the state.

Even with these challenges, I saw innovation and adaptation everywhere I looked.

Internet provider Unitel/Unitek and the Unity Foundation are partnering to host digital literacy classes so Mainers know how to use and access their product to better their lives.

Envirem Organics took a risk and moved into an abandoned building. They’re going to hire 40 employees and produce 3 million bags of soil a year in Unity.

Dan at Lake St. George Brewing opened Maine’s sixth brewery back in 1992. He had to close after three years, but didn’t give up. He adapted to Maine’s growing industry and two months ago, opened Maine’s 97th brewery with his daughter in Liberty.

Kids Unplugged and Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast worked themselves to the bone to get off the ground. Now they’re growing in ways they never thought was possible.

And, even as I write this, I still have more to learn. My Waldo County Works business tour isn’t over. I will be visiting community colleges, adult education centers and technical schools to learn more about the tools our students need to build lifelong careers right here at home.

It’s important we work together to build on those successes to craft Waldo County-specific solutions to our shared challenges so we can grow our economy for generations to come.

It’s the single most important thing we can do for rural Maine right now.

I’ll be working every day to pass legislation that does just that.

Waldo County is not southern Maine, and we don’t have to be to succeed.

When I looked at Wayne Hamilton at the end of our tour of Hamilton Marine and shared just how proud I was to be from Waldo County, he looked at me and said “You know what Erin, I am too.”

Thank you to the business owners, employees and families who have their noses to the grindstone. You are growing our economy and strengthening our future here every day and we are so lucky to have you.

House Majority Leader Erin Herbig is currently serving her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives. She represents House District 97, which includes Belfast, Northport and Waldo.

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