A few weeks ago, I found myself in a coastal area rich in universities and colleges, bursting with ambition, and actively trying to draw back residents who had moved away and improve an income level well below the national average.

Sound familiar? No, I wasn’t in Atlantic Canada but rather in an office in downtown Bangor, Maine, listening to the principals of Mobilize Eastern Maine outline their impressive plans to revitalize their region’s economy.

Maine has a bipolar economy. Most of its residents live in the affluent southern area, and census figures show that the disparity between the south and the rest of the state widened in the past decade. For example, the population of Cumberland County, which includes Maine’s largest city, Portland, gained 6%, while Washington County, near the New Brunswick border, was down 3.2%.

Eastern Maine, which covers from the Bangor area across to the border, is working on a plan to revitalize its economy and attract more people by 2020. Mobilize Eastern Maine has several targets, but the most compelling is its aim by 2020 to increase the average income, which currently sits at about $40,000, to the national average of $50,000.

“We’re not looking at pie-in-the-sky goals,” says Jennifer Brooks, Mobilize Eastern Maine’s director of business development. “We’re looking at being competitive.”

The theme is to move beyond the old school economic-development tactics of courting multi-national companies in the hopes that one of them sets up a factory that employs 500 people. “Instead, the focus is to build on what we already have here,” says Miles Theeman, the president and CEO of Affiliated Healthcare Systems of Bangor.

By that, Theeman means developing a substantial resource base and a knowledge economy with an emphasis on health care, biomedicine, and human capital. The region is home to five universities and colleges, the largest of which is the University of Maine at Orono, which has helped students develop technology at its Foster Center for Innovation since 2005.

It also boasts the Target Technology Center, which includes the state’s largest business incubator, and the Maine Technology Institute, which supports start-ups and commercialization projects. According to MTI’s website, it has funded 1,295 technology projects since 2000, a financial commitment of $106 million that has leveraged more than $173 million in additional funding for a total of $280 million.

Recently, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation initiated the $3-million Blackstone Accelerates Growth program to help the state transition to an innovation economy; the program has been housed at MTI.

The University of Maine is aiming to specialize in specific areas. For example, under the guidance of engineering professor Habib Dagher, the Advanced Structures and Composites Center is already a world leader in the development of cost-effective, high-performance, hybrid composite materials for construction applications. 

The potential of the innovation sector is being buttressed by more traditional economic pursuits. For example, Bangor has launched the largest public-works project in its history. The $65-million Bangor Arena and Conference Center, which will boast an 8,000-seat arena and conference space for 1,500 people, will open in 2013.

If there’s one piece to the puzzle that still needs work, it’s the matter of funding small companies. Maine does have an angel network, the Maine Angels, but it’s based in Bar Harbor, and so far all of the fundings posted on its website have been in southern Maine or other New England states.

Mobilize Eastern Maine is examining its options in organizing angel investors and considering whether to work with Maine Angels or start its own group. Either route should help further the goal of developing small companies rather than attracting branch offices. “We’ve gone from trying to find that one big employer,” says Theeman, “to understanding that the best route to growth is developing companies with 10 employees, one at a time.”