Spent a few days in Portland, ME this past week for work. It is a cool town, and one that seems ripe for new businesses outside of the tourism space. Why? It is a very young, hip town that new grads would enjoy living in – there is music, art, food, and drink that would not be out of place in NYC or Boston. It has a compact downtown area that would facilitate close interaction among startups, like Silicon Alley and Silicon Allee in NYC and Berlin, only on a smaller scale. Portland is also inexpensive compared to major cities – food, rent, office space – all would be significantly less than Boston for example. Finally, it is near enough to Boston to be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists there.
Most of all, it seems like a town that has a good infrastructure and high quality of life, but is crying out for some fresh blood in the economy. Portland’s unemployment rate is well below the national average, and major corporations do base their Maine operations there, but in general good jobs are scarce and salaries low relative to major cities. Maine’s economy in general is based upon agriculture, paper, and tourism. Like other states in northern New England, this leads to a”brain drain” – well educated Mainers flee to Boston and NYC for high paying jobs and the urban experience. Unlike most of the rest of New England, Portland has enough culture and economy that it should be able to attract some hardy young people who want to opt out of the rush to bigger cities – it just needs someone to start the trend, and the state to offer the right incentives.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Many states and municipalities have tried to attract businesses with tax breaks and loan guarantees, with varying success. The federal government has also been down this road, launching Startup America and investing heavily in green energy. There have been several notable failures like Solyndra and Evergreen Solar (funded by the Massachusetts state government), but all in all, DOE’s investments in Clean Energy technology have been successful, leading me to believe that a similar investment/incentive program can be successful on a smaller scale in Maine.