Lewiston-Auburn chamber takes over Top Gun LA as LAEGC weighs future

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LEWISTON — While the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council decides what its future holds after both cities axed funding, it’s handing off two popular programs.

Scott Benson, LAEGC’s economic and business development director, said Tuesday that the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce will take over Top Gun LA and the annual Maine B2B Trade Show.

Auburn cut funding to the LAEGC last year, Lewiston cut funds as of July. Both had made up 53 percent of its annual budget.

Benson said the staff has dropped from four full-time employees and one part-time employee to one full- and one part-time: himself and a part-time commercial loan portfolio manager.

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“We had enough carry-over funding to continue for several months now so that we could figure out, a) what’s the future of the growth council, and then, b) let’s say the worst comes to pass and there is no more growth council … that’s where the chamber stepped in,” Benson said.

Chamber President Beckie Conrad said she sees Top Gun LA as a natural fit. The program, organized by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and run in other parts of the state for years, came to the Twin Cities for the first time in early 2017.

Seven businesses participated. One of them, Turner-based Grojo, landed a $120,000 Microsoft Bizspark prize pack at the final state pitch-off.

In chamber surveys, members consistently flag image and workforce development as top issues, Conrad said. Top Gun gets at both.

“We want to be viewed as a community that really has this young, burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “It’s a high-value-added program for us. We have 1,050 members who are potential mentors, who themselves have business ideas.”

Lewiston-Auburn has space, access to transportation and energy, Conrad said. “We need to begin confidently marketing ourselves as an entrepreneurial community.”

Top Gun LA is funded through sponsorships, currently being lined up, and a $500 participation fee. The city of Lewiston is also providing funds.

Leaders are hoping for a 2018 class of 10 to 12 businesses. The online application period opened in late October and runs though Jan. 10. The program pairs young companies with mentors and weekly lessons, and culminates in a statewide pitch with a $10,000 grand prize in May.

Last year’s class ranged from company owners in their 20s to those in their 50s, from high-tech to high-end purses.

“Everybody thinks, ‘OK, we should be in pitching for the new Amazon headquarters’ and it’s all about ‘chasing smokestacks.’ You’re trying to get the big factory,” Benson said. “And I’m not suggesting that’s not important, but the majority of job growth and wealth creation in any given place comes from the Geigers of the worlds who are committed to the community and make their investments here. It also comes from the entrepreneurial class, the future Geigers. That’s what’s really important about Top Gun.”

The other program being taken over by the chamber, the B2B Trade Show, typically draws thousands of people. It’s billed as the largest business networking event in the state.

Benson noted that LAEGC will continue to maintain its $3.5 million commercial loan portfolio. He’s still actively meeting with companies who’d like to tap into it.

“That (funding) typically fills gaps in projects: Company X wants to add a new piece of equipment, add employees, needs working capital,” he said. “We are meeting weekly with new clients who are exploring deals, some of great magnitude, so we’re looking forward to continuing that program long into the future.”

Conrad, who has headed the chamber since spring, had been president of the LAEGC board. Her term ended in June and she resigned from the board on Tuesday.

kskelton@sunjournal.com

The Grojo Inc. team at the Top Gun competition in Portland in June 2017. (Submitted photo)

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