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Aroostook Partnership offers Loring a hand in attracting jobs to The County

LIMESTONE, Maine — Virtually every company he talks to is looking for more workers and having trouble finding them, Aroostook Partnership CEO Robert Dorsey told members of the Loring Development Authority Board during their meeting on Oct. 11. 

Dorsey’s half-hour presentation to the board centered on the Aroostook Partnership, what the organization has done to bring people and jobs to the region, and how it can help the Loring Commerce Centre.

In order to reverse The County’s declining population and economy, Dorsey said his organization is seeking more aggressive pursuit of opportunities, and that Loring’s incoming aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul project holds great potential for the region.

“A whole lot of things can happen [at Loring],” Dorsey said. “We have funds we can apply, and I wanted to let the board know that, if you need to reach out to folks or get on an airplane to visit them, the board is willing to help with that.”

Dorsey stressed the importance of Loring and its future prospects for the region, citing a “tremendous set of assets” on the former Air Force Base that will be harder to put in service as they age.

Since he announced in June that an aircraft maintenance and repair firm was interested in establishing operations at the Loring Commerce Centre, Flora said he has been getting phone calls from aircraft mechanics in larger, metropolitan areas who are interested in the project.

“I’ll get a phone call and it will be somebody probably in their forties or fifties,” Flora said, adding that the callers, while now located in a large city, have an attachment to The County.

“Maybe they had a parent stationed here in the Air Force,” Flora continued, “but they heard about the possibility of [a maintenance, repair, and overhaul operation] and are interested in not only the job, but the lifestyle, and maybe that’s something we can begin to promote. These people are, in a lot of cases, working at a big city airport and have to deal with traffic, high crime rates, and all the inconveniences of urban living, and want to get away to a place that they can remember.”

Dorsey could relate, and told the LDA board members that when he moved back to Aroostook from Washington, D.C., he was amazed by the change of pace.

“I didn’t have to travel 30 minutes to go 10 miles to Home Depot and spend 10 minutes finding a parking spot,” Dorsey said. “That’s certainly a draw, the quality of life, and getting out of the rat race.”

Dorsey gave the board a run-down of Aroostook Partnership’s origins, its accomplishments, and its plans to help The County bounce back.

The organization, according to Dorsey, began with the “Tarnished Crown Report,” commissioned by “Maine Public Service and the Northern Maine Development Commission” in 2003. This report analyzed demographic trends from the last decade, concluding that the “private sector needed to become more engaged in economic development efforts moving forward.”

The Aroostook Partnership for Progress was formed shortly afterward, with Walt Elish taking the helm to attract businesses to Aroostook.

“That’s a very challenging proposition,” Dorsey said. “There are about 350 businesses in the United States that relocate annually, and about 350,000 locations that compete for them. Northern Maine had a very difficult time competing with Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, the Carolinas, et cetera.”

The Aroostook Partnership for Progress later began focusing on Aroostook County’s strengths, and how to emphasize the region’s assets. The leadership determined that biomass, information technology, forestry, agriculture, renewable energy, and manufacturing were among The County’s strengths.

Dorsey came on board in 2012, and the Aroostook Partnership for Progress merged with LEAD (Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development) last year to form the Aroostook Partnership.

“Now,” Dorsey said, “we have about 100 companies that invest annually, four colleges, and partners from California, southern Maine, and really all over, who have an interest in developing projects in Aroostook.”

The region’s biggest challenge, according to Dorsey, is “securing our future workforce.”

“We have 10,000 more people above the age of 60 than between 0 and 20,” Dorsey said. “That creates a big challenge looking into the future. That’s why economic development and [aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul] opportunities where you attract workers in who buy houses and send their kids to school is so vital to this region.”

“We have about 31,000 jobs in Aroostook with a 10 percent yearly turnover, and we’re graduating 725 students a year,” Dorsey continued. “You can do the math.”

Over the past five years, Dorsey said about $1 billion has been invested in Aroostook County, creating 900 new jobs.

“This is all anecdotal because we don’t get all the data,” Dorsey said, adding that $378 million was invested in an Oakfield wind project, and that the King Pine wind project is valued at a significantly higher number.

While these recent strides are good news for Aroostook, Dorsey acknowledged that the population decline needs to be addressed.

“That was startling in some respects,” Flora said after Dorsey’s presentation. “Certainly, the demographic trends leave you scratching your head wondering where the future workforce will come from.”

“It can happen,” Dorsey said. “An Apex wind representative met with me the other day — they have 60 wind projects and are among the largest in the United States. They want to look at The County. Every little bit helps. We have to look at every opportunity and, as a region, try to make it successful. We’re all in this together.”

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