May 29, 2011

High tech, low return, say critics of FirstPark

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- In the 13 years since area communities began jointly spending taxpayer dollars to develop a high-tech business park near Interstate 95, $5.7 million has been put into the project.

In return, they communities have received $1 million in total revenue from property taxes at FirstPark and seen the creation of about 700 jobs, mainly through the T-Mobile call center.

For the 24 contributing communities, the investment is a $4.6 million loss, according to data supplied by FirstPark.

Those losses are a cause for concern to some local officials who say their municipalities have been investing money but haven't seen much of a benefit from the Oakland business park.

St. Albans Town Manager Rhonda Stark said the park has not been a good investment for her town.

"There are currently two employees from St. Albans at FirstPark. I believe the concept was a good one and benefited the immediate area of Oakland, but ... the job creation for St. Albans does not set off the net loss," Stark said. "Those two employees could have obtained a job there regardless if St. Albans contributed or not."

But the financial return doesn't tell the whole story, say other municipal officials and FirstPark's director, who point to overall job creation and the resulting economic activity from those employees as important factors.

They also take the long view, saying FirstPark has positioned the region to attract the emerging jobs of the new century, a process that will take decades to realize. Even though FirstPark hasn't realized its full potential, it remains an important bright spot for the region's economy, they say.

"Is it money well spent? I say yes. I'm always looking at the glass being full," said Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen. "To me, the alternative is not to have done anything. Without FirstPark, the glass is less than half full -- there wouldn't have been a glass at all if it weren't for FirstPark."

The 285-acre business park, which began construction in 2001, is at a pivotal moment. At a legislative forum last month, park advocates unveiled a redesign of FirstPark's website and marketing approach in an attempt to bolster its appeal for businesses.

In addition, the park's first strategic plan is being worked on and set to be finished by late summer, according to Diana Rafuse, executive director of FirstPark and its governing body, the Kennebec Regional Development Authority.

That's why it's important to focus on FirstPark's broad economic benefit and not strictly the money that's been invested.

"Our strategic planning group has energy and motivation to focus on opportunities that will bring jobs to the area via FirstPark. This was the original focus and continues to be our direction now," Rafuse said. "What will change is how we do that today versus 10 years ago. The potential is still exciting."

Project officials originally expected FirstPark to become an economic development magnet, eventually attracting businesses that would create thousands of high-quality jobs during a roughly 20-year period.

Now, six of FirstPark's 24 lots have been sold and there are just under 1,000 people working in the park, according to Rafuse.

Rafuse said she considers the value of jobs created at FirstPark as "an indirect offset" to each community's annual contribution, which pays for the debt of building the park.

"At this point, the only jobs we consider are those from T-Mobile as those are only technically 'new' jobs and not 'transferred' jobs," Rafuse said. "So, for example, if China has six residents that work at T-Mobile, we calculate the value of the jobs with and without benefits to obtain the true net return, which, for the most part becomes positive."

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