The sky is not falling. Really


When we talk about business in Maine, we often do so from a perspective that’s needlessly defensive and alarmist. There wasn’t much better evidence of that than an exchange last week during a debate among Republican candidates for governor in Bangor.

The topic was the possibility that Jackson Laboratory might open a satellite research facility in Florida, fueled by state and county subsidies there that could run from $50 to $200 million.

Les Otten weighed in with the charge that Maine could lose “7,000 jobs.” Sen. Peter Mills called the charge a “grotesque exaggeration” and a “falsehood.” He noted that projected employment by Jackson Lab would be about 200 in five years.

Otten’s inflated figure was based on a projection — more likely a guesstimate — that the entire research park being contemplated could hire that many people within ten years. Except for Jackson Lab, none of the prospective companies have anything to do with Maine.

As candidates sometimes do when challenged, Otten continued to repeat the figure, even though it’s seriously misleading. But the real significance of the exchange lies elsewhere — in the idea that any time a Maine company expands out of state, it is curtains for its business in Maine.

We have been conditioned, over the last four decades, by the loss of the poultry business, fish processing, shoes and textiles, and the downsizing of the paper industry’s workforce. It’s no secret that Maine has struggled to maintain its manufacturing base, but that’s something almost every state can say, though we were more invested in manufacturing in the first place.

Jackson Lab does not fit that unhappy pattern. A nonprofit corporation, it is a worldwide leader in genetics research, and has long supplied the mouse strains that are the testing ground for many of the products and medical breakthroughs we’ve come to depend on.

Its workforce has nearly doubled over 20 years, to 1,200, and continues to grow on its main campus in Bar Harbor. Though Mount Desert Island is still associated in the minds of most Mainers with wealthy vacationers, it has become a year-round hub of biological research, with several smaller labs joining Jackson.

Ten years ago, Jackson opened a satellite mouse facility in Sacramento, Calif., without undue angst here. It now employs about 100. The Florida project — about which Jackson has yet to decide, even if legislation is passed — fits that pattern.

Successful companies often expand their geographical reach to take advantage of other employment markets and — in the case of Florida — generous government subsidies.

Maine could not possibly match the sums Florida legislators are talking about, but it has supported various Jackson expansions, primarily through economic development bond issues, over the past ten years. The lab estimates the cumulative total at $46 million.

Such incentives can make sense when they’re tied to specific performance standards, and Jackson’s nonprofit status also helps. It’s often paired with the University of Maine’s expanding research facilities, and both have provided good value for the money.

These incentives are fundamentally different than the many, and expensive, programs by the state to forgive or reimburse taxes for businesses, often without any indication of whether they increase or sustain employment.

The point, which was easy to miss in the exchange between candidates, was that the Jackson Laboratory is a major success story for Maine — in many ways a model employer that has consistently brought good jobs to the state. And it’s not going anywhere, whether or not the Florida venture comes to pass.

There is considerable potential for growth in this now modest “research triangle” between Penobscot and Hancock counties, and when the recession ends its long-term potential will become more clear.

If you’ve traveled elsewhere, you will have noted the boosterish tone most states have about business development. Their state is the best, the brightest and the most future-oriented of any place in the country, if not the world. Maine may be unique in having some of its business leaders, and political candidates, constantly saying that the sky is falling.

Such attitudes may or may not be useful in extracting concessions at the State House. My observation is that the Legislature’s economic committees have greater prominence than ever, and many legislators are well informed about business issues.

But the Chicken Little act is decidedly unhelpful when we try to compete on a regional or a national scale. Nobody is going to tout the virtues of Maine except us. We don’t need to brag — it’s not in our nature — but a little positive thinking wouldn’t hurt.