Maine Surges To Forefront

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Moving ahead of traditional hot zones in the Midwest, Maine has emerged as the new Shangri-la of call center activity. Over the last five years, low costs, an available labor pool and telecommunication upgrades has increased call center activity fourfold. BankBoston, MBNA America, Sitel, ICT, Telemark and Sky Media and are among the companies who have opened centers in Maine.

According to a study by the Boyd Group, the total average annual operating cost for a medium-sized company in Maine is $10 million, which is third lowest in the nation behind Mobile, AL, at $9.7 million and Columbia, SC at $9.96 million. At $12.5 million, San Francisco was the most expensive. Omaha, NE, once the hub of call centers, reports annual operating costs at $10.3 million.

Annual nonexempt labor costs in Maine is $5.2 million compared to the most expensive labor costs in New York at $6.5 million. Maine has the lowest office rent and equipment amortization costs, with $1.2 million compared to the highest costs in New York at $1.4 million. Telecommunication costs in Maine are lowest at $3.5 million compared to New York's high of $3.7 million.

According to Ward Graffam Jr., director of new business development for Maine & Company, an available workforce is a huge incentive for companies, especially at a time when companies face a labor shortage. The average unemployment rate is 7 percent, and in some areas as high as 15 percent, said Graffam.

Important to end-users is the lower cost per hour.

Call centers are perfectly suited for a place like Maine, Graffam said. "We have infrastructure and we have workforce, two things needed for call centers."

The state, in an upgrade that begun five years ago, left behind its flailing telecommunications infrastructure to become well ahead of not only its northeast neighbors but the rest of the country. The telecommunications upgrade -- including fiber optics, digital switches, sonet rings and point of presence -- lifts potential communication barriers for companies.

Maine welcomes businesses, as is reflected by its incentives. The Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program offers a 100 percent refund of equipment taxes for a period of 12 years. The Employee Tax Increment Financing program enables eligible companies to receive 30 to 75 percent of the employees' state withholding taxes for 10 years. Training programs include the Quality Centers Program, which, free of charge, hires and trains reps, and the Governor Training Initiative, which reimburses companies up to 50 percent of training costs.

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