Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity: MEREDA Spring Conference Does Deep Dive Into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

On Tuesday, May 24th, the Maine Real Estate & Development Association (MEREDA) hosted its annual Spring Conference where some 200 real estate professionals gathered at the Holiday Inn By the Bay, as well as virtually, to learn more about the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). With $2.5 billion of federal funds set to flood the state to support programs for improving infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and broadband access, the MEREDA event provided an opportunity to do a deep dive into the impact of the infrastructure bill on Maine and its economy.

“MEREDA is committed to promoting responsible development across the state and to providing forums for our members to engage and learn,” shares Joshua Fifield, MEREDA President. “Our Spring Conference gave us an occasion to connect, discuss, and gain a better understanding about the ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity that the infrastructure bill is presenting to us. We’re at a critical juncture on many fronts and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in our state. MEREDA and its members are looking forward to these exciting new opportunities to invest in Maine’s future.”

Keynote speaker Commissioner Heather Johnson from the Department of Economic and Community Development kicked off the event with a general overview of how the state plans to put the federal funds to work to help Maine. These new funds will complement the planning and programs already in motion from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan as well as the Governor’s 10-Year Strategic Plan. From preparing and growing our workforce to providing all Mainers a reliable connection to broadband, Commissioner Johnson reported that Maine is poised to be efficient and effective with using the federal funds.

Commissioner Johnson also stressed that the state is focused on long term strategies, not short-term band-aid solutions to improve the lives of current Mainers and those people migrating to Maine.

Dale Doughty, Director of Planning at the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT), continued the discussion with a Keynote presentation on the DOT’s plans for the federal funds. Doughty highlighted the Village Partnership Initiative where the DOT partners with local municipalities to help improve access to downtown areas with “gateway treatments” and pedestrian crossings, features which can dramatically improve rural communities. Doughty provided the example of the transformation of the Belgrade Lakes Village on how the DOT could help a town bring back the “human scale” to its downtown. Despite the fact that the BIL funds will barely cover the impact of inflation in the DOT’s use of formula funds for improving roads and bridges, Doughty was optimistic about Maine’s opportunity to capitalize on the expanded grants programs that will enable them to continue to improve and transform the transportation options in Maine.

After a recognition of MEREDA’s 2021 Notable Project recipients, Economist Dr. Charles Colgan gave a presentation on the economic impact of the BIL. Dr. Colgan broke down the $2.5 billion that Maine will receive over 5 years, noting, “It’s not enough, but it may be all we get.” Nonetheless, Colgan observed the opportunities for Maine to really make an impact with this “once-in-a-generation” investment, like removing contaminants like PFAS in Maine’s water infrastructure system. He concluded his presentation by suggesting a strategy for using the federal funds, stressing the need to stretch the funds by supplementing local programs already in place and to recognize the opportunities to invest in truly transformative technologies, such as broadband and wind and solar power. “The biggest mistake is to carry on investing in old systems,” said Colgan. “There’s a lot of work to be done!”

MEREDA shifted from Dr. Colgan’s perspective on infrastructure to his perspective on the real estate economy as it unveiled its 2022 Index, a key economic indicator for Maine. The conference then concluded with a panel discussion featuring Scott Jason of Cianbro Construction, Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine, Greg Payne from the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, and Kerem Durdag of GWI Broadband. The panel was moderated by Brain Curley, Architect and Director of Design and Construction at MaineHealth. The dynamic discussion with these in-state experts highlighted the wide range of intersecting topics that are crucial to maximizing the impact of the BIL funds for the state. Jason focused on the workforce challenges companies like Cianbro face to be able to build new infrastructure, noting that in particular Cianbro needs to attract highly skilled workers with years of experience to complete some of the necessary projects. Selling Maine as a place to live in addition to training entry-level construction workers is part of their strategy. Stoddard outlined how the federal funds can help Maine “go electric” and highlighted the opportunities building owners and developers have to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings. Installing electric vehicle chargers across the state will be another focus for Efficiency Maine. While not specifically part of the BIL funds, Payne spoke about how the affordable housing landscape is a key part of the discussion for Maine to help house the state’s workforce and drive development in rural areas. “Maine’s affordable housing pipeline is big and we need to keep it that way,” shared Payne. Durdag spoke of the monumental effort that companies like GWI and others are engaged in to bring broadband to every Mainer who wants it. The massive injection of federal funds will help Maine level up its infrastructure to the 21st century and enable Mainers “to do business and interact on a global scale.” Durdag compared the current broadband effort to the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s which brought electricity to millions of Americans and to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of the 1950s which changed the way we travel through our country. “What we build today, our kid’s kids will be leveraging off of,” shared Durdag. With the support and planning of the Governor’s office, the plan is to have the state’s broadband network in place in the next seven years. “In terms of speed, that is bonkers-nuts,” quipped Durdag.

To sum things up, Curley commented during the audience Q&A that he is blown away by the transformative nature of the BIL funds. “It’s about more than roads and bridges,” shared Curley. “There will be a ripple effect.” The Spring Conference brought together our state’s best and brightest and underscored how MEREDA and its members have an opportunity to invest in infrastructure that will help Maine build its future in a responsible way. As Durdag noted on the effort, “It will have a massive societal impact. What we do today will matter for generations.”

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