It’s time to end this economic experiment and get taxpayers off the hook.

When large banks and corporations began to fail this year, they didn’t get blank checks from the government with no strings attached. They agreed to tight controls and oversight, including, in some cases, new management.

In contrast, as the River Valley Growth Council and its technology center began to fail, they have approached local communities looking for bailout money to continue doing business as usual. Most recently, they came to the Rumford Board of Selectmen looking for a $25,000 handout, promising nothing in return.

On the federal level and local level, doing business as usual was what caused the failure in the first place. It is no more appropriate for the growth council/tech center than it was for Chrysler.

The growth council and technology center are a project, nearly a decade old, meant to bring jobs and new business to the Rumford/Mexico area. The technology center is a converted 19th-century mill building that was given to the effort by the Mead Corp. Plans were to turn it into an incubator in which entrepreneurs could grow new businesses.

Those plans didn’t work out. The building turned out to be far more expensive to restore and maintain than planned, and the policy decisions of some of the earlier leaders of the growth council led to blind alleys. The problem was compounded when state subsidies for the project were withdrawn.

In recent years, the growth council and technology center have been unable to develop a staff with the marketing or sales skill necessary to bring new business to the area, or even to find a sufficient number of tenants to keep the technology center building solvent.

The end result has been that millions of dollars in federal, state and local tax dollars have flowed through the project, with little effect on economic development in the Rumford and Mexico area.

This hasn’t kept the leadership of the two organizations from continuing to seek tens of thousands of dollars each year from local taxpayers. As might be expected, they have encountered increasing reluctance, with finance committees and select boards in various towns cutting this year’s requests from the growth council down to hardly more than a token.

As a result, the project seems, at last, to be coming to an end. But rather than manage that ending carefully, the growth council and technology center leadership has been trying to coax enough more money from local towns just to keep the doors open. The approach to the Rumford select board was an example, an attempted end run around the normal budget process.

Their pending failure, unless managed carefully, threatens significant damage to local communities. It threatens to cost the taxpayers of Mexico $400,000 for repayment of an old Community Development Block Grant, the terms of which the growth council and tech center failed to meet.

It threatens to close a dental clinic run by Community Dental, an important local public resource, which the growth council and tech center management induced to move into their building, despite the uncertainty of whether they could keep that building open. It threatens to create one more empty building on the island in Rumford, an area which cannot afford any more unoccupied buildings.

These organizations need an exit plan. What is that? It is a plan to close down the current organizations, the tech center and the growth council, without closing the building or causing Mexico to have to pay back the CDBG note.

The plan must be negotiated by parties including the state of Maine, which can pull the CDBG grant, the tech center mortgage holder and Community Dental, the clinic operator, as well as the local towns that have been footing the bill for the tech center and growth council. None of these parties is likely to compromise if the plan is to continue the growth council/tech center in business as usual.

The parties will be flexible only if they see the old, failing methods at last put aside and a fresh approach being taken. The growth council and tech center need to be negotiated out of the picture, while preserving the building, the dental clinic and the wallets of the taxpayers of Mexico.

The first, important part is leadership. If the current growth council/tech center personnel are allowed to control the agenda, the outcome will be one of two: either the place will shut down and everyone will get hurt, or, before shutting down, they spend more time wasting more money, and then shut down.

Let’s not let that happen.

Phil Blampied is coordinator of the town of Rumford’s economic development committee. He lives in Rumford. E-mail [email protected]


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