“LA Maine sends a message,” said John Holden, the newly appointed president of LAEGC who has been on the job for a bit over three months. “People know the other LA (Los Angeles, California) and it is easy to say LA Maine. It captures attention and makes for discussion.”

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Holden was first introduced to Maine in the 1980s when he worked a summer internship building trails at Baxter State Park. He went on to study resource economics and policy at the University of Maine and his career has taken him to such positions as managing director of business retention and expansion for the Ohio State University Extension and on to work in rural development for the United States Department of Agriculture in a branch office in Lewiston.

Most recently, he worked as the community economic development director for Rockland, Maine.

Holden replaces Lucien Gosselin, who served as president of LAEGC for 17 years. Gosselin also had a prior career as the city controller/chief finance officer of the city of Lewiston and as city administrator for the city as well.

The Growth Council was created in 1981, as an evolution from the Lewiston Development Corp., founded in 1952, and the Auburn Business Development Corp., established in 1972.

For over 30 years, LAEGC has been at the forefront of leading economic development for the cities of Lewiston and Auburn by partnering with private sector business and state and federal agencies. They have also been instrumental in creating financial incentives and resources to bring new businesses and opportunities to the area.

Probably the biggest single achievement in past decades was the building of the Walmart Distribution Center in Lewiston. The $93-million investment created 700 jobs and one of the largest distribution centers in the northeast.

Former LAEGC president, Lucien Gosselin remembers, “We were really in an ideal position to respond quickly … to an unknown client inquiry, than either city could have done if LAEGC hadn’t been here. If we hadn’t been, there’s a good chance the community would have missed that opportunity.”

In Auburn, the Growth Council has helped build and fill business parks including the Auburn Industrial Park, now home to over 160,000-square feet of warehousing and distribution centers including Kellogg Snacks. The next phase of development is ready within the Auburn Enterprise Center (www.auburnenterprisecenter.com).

Yet, the Council is much more than simply business parks. The Council is the state’s leading financier of the Finance Authority of Maine’s State Small Business Credit Initiative. And in the very near future, “we hope to announce some exciting programs to support entrepreneurship and a buy-local program,” said Holden.

Another Growth Council success continues to be its hosting of the annual Androscoggin Business to Business Trade Show. Attracting approximately 2,500 attendees and nearly 165 exhibitors, the show is organized in cooperation with the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and continues to be one of the most vibrant and successful business networking opportunities in the area, if not the state.

Holden hopes to continue the successes of LAEGC. His first order of business in his new position is to create a new economic development strategy for LA in the next six months.

“We are charged with being the crafter and designer of that strategy,” said Holden, noting that the agreement LAEGC has with the Twin Cities clearly outlines this in its “Scope of Services.” Holden said that the task comes at the perfect time.

“As the new president of the Growth Council, it couldn’t be a better time to jump into it,” said Holden.

He has started the planning process by holding community meetings to get input from groups and citizens about what an economic development strategy will look like. “I’m hoping to help craft this strategy, implement it and be here for the long haul,” said Holden.

Holden knows all too well that creating an economic strategy is very different from many years ago.

“From 1960 to 1990, things didn’t change much at all when it came to economic development,” said Holden, pointing out that the period didn’t have the fast-paced technological advancements of the last two decades. “Today, you can’t plan out for five to 10 years because things accelerate so fast. Today, businesses plan out for 18 to 36 months maximum and the strategy has to be flexible. They have to be able to turn things quickly as they unfold. And all along, businesses have to continue to be engaged in the process.

“Traditionally, economic development has been building business parks and attracting new business, but it is also important to focus on helping to expand and retain current businesses,” said Holden. “The majority of job growth anyplace comes from existing businesses. If you grow them, you will retain them in the area.”

Holden plans to offer opportunities through the Growth Council to open ideas for innovation and to strengthen the skills of entrepreneurship, whether starting a new business or expanding a current one. He cites the model of the Blackstone Accelerates Growth organization with its partners, Maine Technology Institute, Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, and the University of Maine’s Innovation Engineering as an example for development in LA.

“We will be the connector for new programming around entrepreneurship,” said Holden. “We will have an alphabet soup of resources to help out and the Growth Council will be the key entry point for help.”

Another one of the Growth Council’s goals is in the area of what is called “creative economy” and “creative place making.” It hopes to continue the efforts that have been started in previous years and to inspire new projects. The essence of the effort is to create spaces, both public and private, for opportunities to thrive.

“This building used to be a car dealership,” said Stephanie Lewis, vice president and chief financial officer who has been employed at LAEGC for 16 years, as she makes reference to the building that houses her organization. “The building was restored and preserved and is now home to a number of organizations.”

“In development, we often build business parks,” added Holden, implying the notion that “if you build it, they will come.” “In the same way, if you build creative spaces, creative people will come.”

Holden cited an upcoming event called Build Maine that takes place on May 20 and 21 at Bates Mill 1 in Lewiston where attendees will explore ways to invest in future community building efforts.

“The goals of Build Maine perfectly align with much of our plans,” said Holden.

Build Maine holds the idea that development can take place more productively. The Build Maine website (buildmaine.squarespace.com) poses that people involved in the work of building Maine — the builders, funders, elected officials, engineers, lawyers, planners, finance institutions, and rule makers — have the opportunity to converge to share best practices and aspirations for moving Maine forward within the reality of the new economy.

Holden noted that the area is prime to build spaces, whether revitalizing buildings or creating spaces for businesses. Much work has been done, but there is certainly more to do.

Moving forward, Holden hopes to emphasize that marketing efforts for LA are about the region and not about individual cities.

“Each city can distinguish itself in what makes them uniquely different,” said Holden. “The reality of this work is that what is good for either city would benefit both. We are one marketplace in terms of what we can offer businesses or developers. We all benefit from progress in one town or the other.”

The work spearheaded by Holden and Lewis is supported currently by three other team members: John Belisle, loan portfolio manager, Maura Moody, office manager and public relations coordinator, and the latest addition to the team Scott Benson, economic and business development director who joins LAEGC this May, 2015.

When asked what would be the top wish-list items for economic development in the coming months, Holden and Lewis each set interesting visions.

“I would like to see us have a solid return on our investment in what we do with greater collaboration. We can pull our own weight, but we can’t do it all on our own,” said Holden, hoping to see multiple returns from many diverse efforts.

“We are always concerned about resources that will sustain the work we do,” said Lewis. She pointed out that while the Growth Council has a few smaller funding sources, the majority of funding comes from their two major clients, the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. “We always have to be ready to find other funding.”

Holden added, “It is in service to Auburn and Lewiston and a coordinated and collaborative relationship, focusing on adding value to the work of the cities that is our primary focus; yet we are developing other funding sources to complement the public funds.

“Our efforts will help bring new business or business expansion to the area,” said Holden, reflecting that such results would bring with it jobs and economic activity. “It would be great to see that happen with a half dozen or more of our businesses.”

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