Rural connections = Rural jobs
This spring, Sandford ‘Sandy’ Blitz of Hudson, Maine, was named as federal co-chair of the newly formed Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal economic development task force with $30 million in annual funding authority. The commission is charged with bringing jobs and economic opportunity to the rural regions of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Maine Better Transportation Association’s Maria Fuentes sat down with Blitz to talk about his new job.
Maria Fuentes: In your new job, is there a particular area / issue that you would like to address first? Why?
Sandford Blitz: When I was first nominated by President Obama, I was asked to consider what the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC) should do in order to alleviate the economic distress in the four-state region. I said this: we must invest in three areas: 1) transportation infrastructure 2) energy projects that will lower costs and 3) broadband/telecommunications.
The reality, of course, is that first I have to create an organization. The governing body of the commission is comprised of the governors within our region – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York – and myself, as the federal co-chair. The governing board will set the commission’s priorities, and then I will have to implement those. To do that, I will develop an infrastructure, hire staff, and we will hit the ground running.
After initial staffing and office needs are met, the commission will need to develop and implement a procedure to award grants prior to September 30, 2010.
The commission is mandated to expend at least 40 percent of the funding we receive from Congress on infrastructure, and that can mean investments in transportation, general infrastructure such as water and wastewater, telecommunications or any combination of those three.
Fuentes: You’ve lived in New York and Washington. Now, you have been at home in Hudson for more than 25 years. How does that urban-rural experience affect your new job outlook?
Blitz: I grew up in New York and lived in Connecticut and Washington before moving to Maine. At the beginning of my career, when I was working in more urban areas, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) was a critical federal agency, more geared toward inner city, urban areas. In Maine and in the commission’s region, HUD doesn’t have that kind of impact. But in the last 25 years, I have learned that no matter where you are located, and no matter what the landscape is, the problems and challenges are basically the same. While the scope and emphasis might be different, the core challenges are still there. For example, in urban areas, a great transportation challenge is managing congestion. In rural areas, connectivity is the critical issue.
If you look at social issues, there are also similarities. Depression and poverty happen in both the city and the country – and they are equally devastating to the people experiencing it.
The bottom line is: We have far more in common than we have differences.
Fuentes: Are issues facing northern/rural Maine different than those facing the other states in the region?
Blitz: The issues facing northern/rural Maine are similar to other parts of the commission’s region. In fact, the region was created and designed to purposely look at areas of the country that are sharing the same challenges, specifically suffering from chronic and contiguous long-term economic distress. By design, the different regions were created so that there was similarity within them.
Prior to 2008, there were four commissions in the country; in 2008, when the NBRC was created, Congress created two others as well: the Southwest Border and the Southern Crescent.
Fuentes: Are they different than those faced by other rural states/areas of the country?
Blitz: There are some differences among the commissions. Some of the regions have more states within them. For instance, the Appalachian commission includes 13 states. But what is similar about each of these regions is that chronic and contiguous long-term economic distress. So again, we are more alike than we are different. However, in relation to the other rural states/areas of the country, commission regions suffer increased economic distress.
Fuentes: Can transportation bolster a rural economy? How?
Blitz: As the Northeast Can Am Connections study revealed, without strong intermodal transportation connections, we cannot have a viable economy. Transportation is absolutely critical to the well-being of the economy of any region. One example happened within the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has been around for a long time. That commission – over the course of some years - expended $6.8 billion of their appropriated funding to create an Appalachian Highway System within 13 states. I believe that system has transformed the region.
Fuentes: The legislation creating the commission identifies priorities that include resource conservation and open space preservation. How do you balance the economic and conservation needs?
Blitz: Much of the region’s economy is based on natural resources: farming, forestry, fishing, marine resources and tourism. In order for these major sectors of the region’s economy to sustain themselves, there needs to be a protective conservation element. Some such conservation elements exist now and have been successful at conserving resources while driving the regional economy.
For example, anti-clear cutting and other conservation measures, many self-imposed by the industry, have served to sustain the “North Woods” region that covers the four states of the NBRC. This is the largest, privately held, sustained forest in the United States, and is a major sector of the region’s economy.
Fuentes: What role do highways play in economic development of a rural area where congestion isn’t the typical issue?
Blitz: The issue is connectivity. If we don’t have good highways, we can’t get our goods to market. It is as simple as that. Additionally, lack of infrastructure holds back development in rural regions; the private sector doesn’t want to invest in areas with substandard infrastructure. Even in today’s world of internet sales, once the purchase is made, the product still has to be delivered to the customer on our transportation system.
Fuentes: You want to create jobs in a 36-county area by investing in infrastructure improvements. What kinds of investments do you envision that could include?
Blitz: The commission – by law – must expend 40 percent of its appropriations on three types of infrastructure. These are transportation infrastructure including rail, port, highways, air; service infrastructure such as water and sewer lines; and telecommunications infrastructure.
I am anxious to get going so that we can begin awarding grants in these areas.
Fuentes: What are your thoughts on an east-west highway for Maine? Completion of the interstate (north-south highway)? Is this critical for rural Maine and its neighbors?
Blitz: I spent more than 10 years running an organization with the idea of building out an east-west highway across the state of Maine, and in doing so, worked with folks in northern Maine who understood the need for a north-south highway. I still believe in this. Maine needs this. It would be of great benefit to an improved economy and to the overall well-being of our state. An east-west highway would connect us not only to our neighbors east and west, but also Canada. Our efforts showed us that we could – and should – create an economic region from Halifax to Montreal and Toronto. That region would serve 20 million people. We aren’t talking about 1.3 million people in Maine; we are talking about 20 million people connected by a region. This would provide connections to termini on each end that are more prosperous than the states and provinces in between. Imagine that we can create prosperity and reorient the economy that will eventually connect this region to Europe and the Far East.
That is also true of a north-south highway. That region [northern Maine] of the state has been at a disadvantage because of a lack of access to markets and connectivity. We need to change that.
Fuentes: How do ports and rail fit into the picture?
Blitz: Because of the way our region is configured, there aren’t many ports, except here in Maine. Our ports in Maine are critical – they enable other states to ship goods without going through congested ports like Boston or New York. This is of benefit to the entire region. Certainly in regard to rail, as the Northeast Can Am Connections study points out, there are holes in our rail infrastructure that must be completed and improved.
Fuentes: Do you have a Canadian counterpart?
Blitz: No, but my experience in the last 25 years has proven to me the importance of improving and increasing our relationship with our Canadian neighbors. To reorient our economy, we must take advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and increase trade with our neighbors in Canada, including in service areas. A wonderful example is happening here in Bangor where a local architect has partnered with a Canadian firm, and they share work and resources, depending on their needs.
Fuentes: How will you bring to bear your experience in government?
Blitz: My experience in government started when I served as chief of staff to the mayor of Bridgeport – the largest city in Connecticut. I then went to Washington, D.C., where I served in the commissioner’s office at the Office of Public Building Services, under the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). I served in various capacities for eight years at GSA and became the Economic Development Representative for the Economic Development Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce. This experience in the federal government has been invaluable to me in dealing with various bureaucracies and intricacies of federal legislation and regulations.
Fuentes: What do you see as the most difficult element of your new job?
Blitz: There are challenges associated with any effort like this, but I am more interested in focusing on the opportunities. I believe that bringing Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont together with the assistance of the federal government, will result in farsighted, well-conceived approaches to bring opportunity to the northern border. Additionally, at this time of increased economic distress, the NBRC will be another vehicle, with resources, to assist in the creation of much needed jobs, in a region under enormous economic strain.
We will be working with all industries within the region to assist them in whatever way the commission can in order to sustain and expand their economic opportunities.
The commission represents a unique and invaluable resource to improve the lives of all who live in this broad region.