2015-04-17 / Front Page

Business friendly designation lost

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORLAND — Since March 2012, thirty-one Maine municipalities have been certified as “business friendly communities” under a program launched by Gov. Paul LePage to spur economic growth. On Feb. 20, South Portland became the first to have its certification revoked.

The change of status happened quietly and most city residents can be forgiven for not noticing. After all, the sign celebrating the city’s status was removed in November at the order of City Manager Jim Gailey. At that time, Gailey had the “Welcome to South Portland” sign formerly located next to the former National Guard Armory building relocated to the median at the exit into the city from the Casco Bay Bridge. That’s where the sign announcing South Portland’s status as a business-friendly community was located and the two together “looked too cluttered,” Gailey said, in an April 13 interview.

Gailey said he planned to have the sign put up this spring at a different location, but now there’s no need. The sign remains in storage at the public works building. Meanwhile, South Portland has been removed from the DECD webpage featuring Maine’s business-friendly communities.

It actually took two tries for South Portland to earn the certification. Originally denied as one of the original applicants in 2012 — a review team faulted the city for having “a complex permitting process with vague timelines,” among other critiques — it finally won certification in July 2013.

The award was accompanied by a celebratory photo op with city officials, local business leaders and DECD staffers, at the certification sign, temporarily installed at the time near Legion Square.

“We are thrilled to be one of the communities within the state of Maine to receive this designation,” Gailey said at the time. “The designation complements the businesses that call South Portland home. This is also an honor for staff, who have done a tremendous job in working with businesses, making it welcoming and easy to do business in South Portland. South Portland is doing great things and I believe by this designation it shows we are doing it right.”

“The addition of these four communities to an already impressive list further strengthens my belief that Maine is a great state in which to do business,” said Gov. Paul LePage, in a press release noting that Belfast, Caribou and Hermon were certified “business-friendly” at the same time as South Portland.

“These communities lead by example and have found ways to improve their own services and processes for the benefit of job creators,” LePage wrote. “This is the kind of proactive approach that Maine embraces to attract and retain businesses.”

However, within a year, when South Portland adopted its “Clear Skies Ordinance” banning the flow of diluted bitumen — more commonly known as “tar sands” through the city — the administration’s enthusiasm had cooled considerably.

“At time of certification in 2013, South Portland demonstrated a businessfriendly approach to partnering with the private sector with a goal of attracting new private investment leading to new career opportunities for Maine people,” DECD spokesman Doug Ray wrote in an April 15 email, in response to an inquiry from the Sentry. “The Administration is very disappointed and finds it hard to believe that local elected leaders in South Portland would then turn around and pass an ordinance (Clear Skies) that is clearly anti-business, anti-growth and anti-jobs. What message does this send to the business community that might be left wondering, what business sector will be targeted next?”

Ray wrote that the decision to revoke South Portland’s businessfriendly certification came from “the administration, and that DECD Commissioner George Gervais “met with Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings on Feb. 20 to inform him of the decision.

“After that meeting the DECD website was updated accordingly and Mr. Jennings indicated the signs would be removed,” Ray wrote.

Of course, the one sign erected was already down. A second sign given to the city never went up at all. Gailey said in his April 13 interview that Gervais’ visit came in the form of a phone call to Jennings.

Although DECD has issued no press release or official notice to South Portland, Ray confirmed it is the first community to have its business-friendly certification revoked.

In addition to the sign and website promotion, business-friendly designees also get bonus points on Community Development Block Grant applications to the state. However, that’s a benefit that never applied to South Portland because its block grant money is funneled through Cumberland County directly from the federal government as a fixed percentage of funding to Portland.

Apart from the sign, “we really didn’t see any benefits,” Gailey said of the certification.

Even so, Ray says the program has worth beyond the initial flurry of photo ops in local media when a new certification is announced.

“The application and review process forces communities to take a critical look at all areas of economic development from planning to the issuing of permits. It encourages government to become better partners with the private sector,” he wrote.

“We are currently exploring various improvements to the program, including certification criteria, the ongoing review process and overall benefit to communities. The program was not intended to simply serve as a rubber stamp and then walk away,” Ray said.

South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen did not respond by press time to an April 14 request for comment on loss of the business friendly certification. Cohen also sits as president of the South Portland – Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce.

“I think you always want to go through the effort, if there’s a designation out there, to apply for it. It can’t hurt,” Gailey said, displaying somewhat less enthusiasm for the business-friendly certification that in the past.

Gailey also said the sole reason given to Jennings for the revocation — South Portland’s ongoing legal conflict with Portland Pipe Line Corp. over tar sands — seems thin reasoning to pull the certification.

“I think tying the two together, it’s not there,” he said. “I’m not thinking that we should have changed anything we’ve done, even if we knew that meant that the certification would’ve got revoked.”

South Portland’s Clear Skies ordinance was adopted by a 6-1 vote of the city council in July 2014. Portland Pipe Line filed suit in U.S. District Court on Feb. 6 to have the ordinance overturned. DECD then revoked South Portland’s business-friendly certification on Feb. 20. On March 31, the city responded to the PPL suit by asking to have the case dismissed based on statements made by the company that it has no plans to trade in the product barred by the local zoning amendment, or moving products via the means prevented by it. The suit now awaits the next round of filings by attorneys.

“Right now, we’re in a waiting game,” Gailey said.

LePage spokesman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday that the governor is away on vacation and not available for comment.

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