Author touts comeback of Maine boatbuilding industry

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States challenged by budget cuts and struggling economies should look to Maine’s boatbuilding business to find ways out of the crisis.

That’s according to Karen Mills, a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Association, who wrote on Entrepreneur that her home state of Maine capitalized on “a huge asset that wasn’t being fully maximized: our boatbuilding industry.”

“The state had led the world in boatbuilding for centuries and still had the world’s best craftsmen and women, but the industry — once a powerful job creator — was lagging,” Mills wrote. “The boats coming out of Maine were not built using the most up-to-date materials, and the costs were so high the builders were barely making a profit. Ironically, a solution to the problem was being developed just a few miles away at the University of Maine, where researchers were experimenting with a new lightweight composite technology.”

By bringing boatbuilders, researchers, state economic development teams and the U.S. Department of Labor to the table, they were able to develop a regional economic cluster to train workers, market the end product as Maine Built Boats and position the industry to grow and create jobs.

“Today, Maine Built Boats is going strong,” Mills wrote. “The boats are light, fast and use the latest technology. Annually, boatbuilding has become more than a $650 million industry, with about 450 companies and 5,000 jobs tied to it.”

Mills says that although it’s tempting to think the proximity of the university and the industry make it a “once-in-a-blue-moon” story, other communities can replicate the model by leveraging existing resources.

“It’s true that at a time of continued fiscal austerity in state budgets there’s limited room for investing in innovative economic growth programs,” Mills wrote. “Yet, creating an ecosystem does not require a huge investment — even small incentives go a long way. At their core, entrepreneurial ecosystems are built on the belief that in local economies the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.”

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