April 11, 2014






County group gains web-based mapping tools
by Lora Whelan


     Mapping: Almost everyone takes it for granted. It pretty much makes the human world go round, and without it everyday life would come to a chaotic halt. Even the maps from 10 years ago are looking anachronistic in the digital and global information system (GIS) technology era. Judy East, executive director of the Washington County Council of Governments (WCCOG), is the first to admit that most people's eyes glaze over when she talks about the opportunities that GIS brings to the local level. But their eyes sharpen the minute she mentions the municipal costs saved within annual town budgets when municipal planning maps that can cost $5,000 a pop can now cost in the range of $500. Even better, she says, they're not just paper anymore; they're online and can be updated and enhanced with different layers of information. Software is advancing so rapidly that maps can be manipulated in ways that even six months ago was not possible, East explains.
     Thanks to the University of Maine Machias (UMM) GIS Laboratory and Service Center, WCCOG was able to partner and create the online mapping tools accessible to individuals, code enforcement officers and planning boards, realtors and regional planners such as East. It's all part of the threeyear GROWashingtonAroostook effort that encompasses 12 program areas and countless staff and volunteer team hours. Program areas range from economic development strategies, renewable energy, healthy communities, sustainable housing and more.
     Made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Sustainable Communities, more recently named the Office of Economic Resilience, the project has been overseen by the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC) as the lead agency with significant work performed by WCCOG and volunteer teams as well as by Sunrise County Economic Council (SCEC) and others.
     Webbased maps have been created for planning and land records management, climate resilience and storm prediction, local food and food producer networks, transportation and affordable housing analysis, as well as design guidance, instructional materials and technical support. While this all might seem a treat for the techies out there who enjoy playing with websites and online tools, the bigger picture is always in East's mind, and she hopes others will start to get it, too. "It's way more than a Google address site map. It's interpreted information," she explains. With computer in hand, planning board members can be at a meeting and look up a site under discussion and immediately find out specifics like zoning, ordinances, wetland or shorefront designation and much more. There are online links to the registry of deeds for questions about deeded rights or language. With municipal budgets squeezed and town staff often parttime, what used to be a dance of coordinating schedules to look at maps in a town office "can now be done at home in their jammies," East says of individuals.
     Zooming out to the even bigger picture, East notes in her executive summary under the GROWashingtonAroostook Growth Management Law Change section that in order to be eligible for state and federal funding for community facilities or infrastructure communities must have consistent, locally adopted comprehensive plans. The GROWashingtonAroostook regional planning initiative, of which the mapping is a part, will contribute some regional data sets and regional policy for all towns within Washington County.
     With the webbased mapping program, "We've established the foundation for future work. The work that goes into building the foundation is huge. Now we can build on it. Now's the fun stuff," East says. The ESRI software alone cost $10,000. The maps and the GIS abilities are tools that are usually reserved for large cities with a department that costs $100,000 or more per year to run. "We're providing the same caliber of information as those large departments," she says. ESRI, East notes, has been very interested in the project, providing additional support to the UMM GIS lab.
     Staff and work teams involved in the GROWashingtonAroostook project tackled 12 areas that influence regional efforts to develop healthy and affordable communities, job creation and modern infrastructure. Volunteer teams made up of business leaders, individuals and nonprofits worked with East on: brownfields and economic renewal, climate change and infrastructure resilience, healthy communities, renewable energy and related training, sustainable housing, transportation and housing, transportation infrastructure in support of economic development, water infrastructure investment and growth management law change. Additional teams worked under the leadership of NMDC and SCEC on economic development and workforce development.
     The public may view the 12 reports completed by GROWashingtonAroostook, the mapping descriptions and access the online map resources through the website <>.

Reviving Mobilize Maine
     NMDC Director of Regional Planning Michael Eisensmith led the economic development work team of GROWashingtonAroostook. A group led by SCEC, Mobilize Downeast Maine (MDEM) was responsible for some of the work, with a staff person coordinating with business groups to identify four areas of research: creation of specific goals tied to economic indicators; map unique area assets and prioritize; focus assets to specific industry/economic clusters; and finally a report discussing the efforts and gains made over the threeyear project. MDEM did not make it to the threeyear mark. Over the past year the effort ran out of steam, and the staff coordinator left the position.
     Mobilize Maine is a statewide effort implemented in 2009 and funded through a combination of sources including a $575,000 Economic Development Administration grant, Fairpoint Communications and others. Each of Maine's six economic development districts has a Mobilize Maine component responsible for businessled teamwork to galvanize economic development from the forprofit community. Aroostook County, for example, has the businessled group Aroostook Partnership for Progress that was started in 2003 by business leaders and took on the Mobilize Maine mantle for Aroostook County.
     Eisensmith says, "The successful Mobilize Maine experience in northern Maine has been a direct result of the involvement and leadership by some of the largest businesses in our county. It is critical that a similar engagement be created with successful businesses in Washington County so they can inform and guide regional business expansion and job creation."
     Eisensmith explains, "Mobilize Downeast Maine did some very good work over the past 18 months ( specifically, the establishment of measurable goals and deciding which economic sectors to focus on. Over the past several months there has been a loss of momentum on this initiative." He continues, "NMDC will be connecting with Sunrise County Economic Council's leadership, regional businesses and other organizations to talk about how to reinvigorate MDEM as a businessled effort. Staff from NMDC visited several Washington County businesses over the past two years and we were astonished at their success and the potential synergies between Washington and Aroostook businesses."

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