February 23, 2015 | Mainebiz
Like the real estate motto, Maine offers location, location, location
During hard times or hard winters, Maine and Mainers chug along. Yet there are always those asking how Maine can grow and prosper.
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with Peter Vigue, chairman of the Pittsfield-based Cianbro Cos., the largest construction firm based in Maine, with $530 million in annual sales and 4,000 employees. Ever since I joined Mainebiz nearly a year ago, people, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, have urged me to talk with Vigue and get his take on economic development.
“One of our greatest strengths is people know how to survive. People are resilient, they survive somehow,” Vigue says of Mainers. “We’re independent. I’m not saying we’ll succeed, but we’ll survive.”
He cites residents of Washington County who make a living by “tipping” trees, raking blueberries and digging bloodworms.
But Vigue — who was born in Caribou, went to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine and lives in the Pittsfield area — says independence can have a downside. Maine’s geography, the great distance between regions and other factors mean it’s harder to get various factions to work together. He cites the number of chambers of commerce, some of which overlap in coverage, creating competition instead of cooperation.
“How do you get everyone going in the same direction?” he asks.
The challenge is the northern half of the state continues to see outward migration and a dwindling number of jobs.
He says he’s worked with governors — most recently, Angus King (when he was in that role), John Baldacci and Paul LePage.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about the people. We’re in a rut,” says Vigue, adding that it’s the business community that could drive change.
“If you’re going to be part of an economy, you need connectivity,” he says. That applies as much to technology as infrastructure.
“What is the thing Maine has always had? Natural resources and location. We could fill sailing ships in Bangor and go anywhere you needed to go … From [shipping] lumber to pulp and paper,” says Vigue.
Now, with the decline of Maine’s paper industry, “we’re refocused on playing defense,” he says.
Yet Vigue stresses the need to again use the waterways to Maine’s advantage. He’s a big proponent of expanding the shipping facility at Eastport, one of Maine’s three deep water ports (along with Searsport and Portland). Expansion would mean having to build rail access (at present, the closest rail line is 16 miles away, at Ayers Junction). Yet the “deep water” part of the port already exists. Even as the Port of New York and New Jersey spends $7 billion to deepen its channel to 50 feet, Eastport has a natural resource with its depth of 64 feet. Deeper channels mean larger ships and greater cargo capacities.
Leading ports in New York; Norfolk, Va.; and Savannah, Ga., are reaching capacity. Ports on the West Coast are beset by labor issues and high costs. Eastport, by contrast, has great potential and is a step closer to ports in Europe and the Suez Canal, Vigue says.
Though the effort has stalled, Vigue continues to push for an east-west highway that could connect Maine to Quebec on one side and New Brunswick on the other (running from Coburn Gore on the west to Calais on the east).
“The real challenge isn’t about a highway,” he says. “We’re within one day’s travel from 40% of the U.S. population. What do we have that other people want? What is sustainable?”
Maine’s agriculture potential can also be used to our advantage, he says. Food is one thing everyone needs. As a native of Aroostook County, he has a natural inclination to promote the agricultural resources there: potatoes, broccoli, beef and other products. And products with a Maine label continue to have widespread appeal.
“We have 1.3 million people. We can turn this around on a dime,” Vigue says. “But we need a strategy and a plan.”