Peter L. McGuire, Staff Writer
PARIS— In a small office on the second floor of the Community Concepts building in Market Square, a two-person operation is trying to change the direction of economic development in Oxford County.
Western Maine Economic Development Council Director Glen Holmes looks over financial data in his South Paris office.
In the past year and a half, the Western Maine Economic Development Council, and its director, Glen Holmes, have gone into overdrive and are establishing a track record of success in a region that has struggled economically.
According to Holmes, WMEDC’s goal is twofold: To organize programming that helps businesses, communities and individuals prosper; and to provide technical and financial support to entrepreneurs looking to start an enterprise.
Although Holmes, a former Buckfield town manager, took over as director in 2012, WMEDC was established by Community Concepts Inc. five years ago.
In 2011, county commissioners agreed to provide between $110,000 and $112,000 annually to fund the organization effort for an initial three years.
“What they were looking for was economic development countywide,” Holmes says.
In its 2014 request for $112,000 from the county, WMEDC points to its 2013 work, highlighting the assistance it gave to the Envision Rumford project, its involvement in last month’s Crossroads International Celtic Festival, and the work it has done to encourage passenger rail through the county.
Rumford Town Manager Carlo Puiia said Holmes and Mia Purcell, a program manager at WMEDC, have been “instrumental” in helping Envision Rumford join the Maine Downtown Network, a crucial step in reinvigorating the downtown.
As a countywide organization, WMEDC can provide the services that are impossible for Rumford and other towns to fund independently, Puiia noted.
“It’s been a godsend, really,” he said.
WMEDC has provided technical assistance and advice on large-scale projects such as the Oxford Casino project and helped smaller businesses get loans through the Community Concepts Finance Corp., the funding request shows.
The corporation, a Community Development Financial Institution certified by the U.S. Treasury Department, provides loans through a number of sources to prospective businesses that need some help to get off the ground, Holmes said.
“If you want to open a business and I ask you what you need, odds are the first thing on your mind isn’t going to be customer service training or search engine optimization,” Holmes said.
“You need those things, but it’s not the top thing; that’s money and advice.”
According to its funding request, Holmes, from his position on the Community Concepts Finance Corp. board, has referred seven businesses for loans, four of which were approved, for a total of $435,000 in capital and 22 jobs.
In many cases, however, access to money isn’t as important as sitting down with a prospective entrepreneur and answering their questions, walking them through problems they might encounter setting up a new business, Holmes said.
From the perspective of county commission Chairman David Duguay, the county has made a good investment in WMEDC.
“Glenn has the know-how and the contacts for people who want to start up a business or own a business and are having problems,” Duguay said.
Duguay said he is pleased with the progress made by the organization and with the quarterly updates Holmes provides to the commissioners.
Despite its success, WMEDC’s work hasn’t been without its challenges, Holmes said.
A project designed to entice businesses to open in downtown Norwayby offering free rent for the summer didn’t succeed in attracting any takers, for example.
In another case, the loan offered by Community Concepts Finance Corp. to Mills Market in Andover came too late to help fund its recent opening and the conditions attached were too unattractive to make it worthwhile, owner Trisha Cox said.
Still, Holmes plans to grow WMEDC’s role in the county by starting a micro-lending program in 2014 and continuing to link businesses with Community Concepts Finance Corp.’s growing loan program.
In addition, WMEDC is working on the second part of a three-year project to identify needs in Oxford County’s “cluster industries,” forestry products, precision machining and tourism.
Above all, Holmes would like to grow WMEDC’s profile in the broader community and make more people aware of what it can offer.
“I believe that if you even just have an idea of a business you want to start, we are the place you should call first,” Holmes said. “We can help you find those other state, local or federal organizations; we can be that lead to help you out.”