2015-09-18 / Front Page

Public invited to weigh in

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Ahead of a public workshop designed to help city leaders plan for economic development, data is trickling in from an ongoing study that paints a portrait about the financial health of South Portland residents.

According to data being compiled for the South Portland Economic Development Committee (SPEDC) by Karl Seidman, a consultant from the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology,the number of people living in poverty in South Portland has doubled since 2000, pushing local poverty levels above comparative rates in both Maine and Cumberland County. According to SPEDC spokesman Peter Stocks, the study will show the median household income in South Portland is 8 percent below Cumberland County, despite a 170 percent increase since 2004 in the number of local households earning more than $100,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Seidman’s research also reveals South Portland has lost “a significant number” of jobs in the retail, manufacturing, food service and hospitality and construction sectors since 2004. During that same period, job growth in Westbrook was up 21 percent, while Scarborough’s spiked 11 percent, Stocks said.

“That was a surprise, as was the job losses, although I have not yet had time to really dive into the reasons behind those numbers,” South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said Tuesday.

Gailey said the full report by Seidman, who was paid “about $25,000” from city TIF funds for his work, is not yet complete. That, he said, explains the lack of an exact job loss figure in a recent press release issued by SPEDC.

“Right now it’s a lot of talking to people and data gathering in advance of the upcoming workshop,” he said.

That workshop will take place at the South Portland Community Center at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1, when attendees will be invited to weigh in on the results of the Seidman report and share their visions for the economic future of the city.

That feedback will help SPEDC craft an overhaul of South Portland’s comprehensive economic plan, a document that has not been updated since 1977, according to Stocks.

“It is the committee’s hope that a new plan can help the city increase employment, increase the tax base and identify specific ways to help South Portland prosper and grow,” Stocks said. “Our city, like most of the country, has gone through a tumultuous economic time. Things are definitely better than they were six years ago; however, we are experiencing some trends now that are negative for all of us that live or work in South Portland.”

“I think the new plan will be a useful tool, not only in telling us our current situation, but also in providing a road map for city staff and the economic development committee to focus on over the next year to five years,” Gailey said. “We’ll really be using this plan to set the direction for economic development here in the city.”

Creating a new economic development plan was a goal of former Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings, who crossed the river in June to take the top job in Portland City Hall. Jennings’ replacement, Joshua Reny, will be on hand for the Oct. 1 workshop. However, because it will be his first day on the job, Gailey said Reny is not expected to take a lead role at the meeting. Instead, Gailey himself will be on hand to help committee members facilitate the proceedings, he said.

Gaily said South Portland will be taking a unilateral approach to economic development. In 2012, the Greater Portland Economic Development Corporation hired its first executive director, using money left over from dissolution of the South Portland shipyards following World War II. The stated goal of the GPEDC at the time was to lead economic development on a regional basis, in order to keep cities and towns in the area from cannibalizing each other’s business base and fighting over new prospects. However, the new director left after 15 months on the job and was never replaced.

“We’re going on our own on this one,” Gailey said of the local plan development. “We’ll certainly share our data with the GPEDC, but I think each community has its own areas of desire for economic growth.”

To help spur creation of the plan, the SPEDC is seeking help from city residents and business owners, asking each to complete an online survey, available at www.monkeysurvey.com/r/CK6BVY5.

“Despite these negative trends, South Portland has some very valuable assets that can help us grow our economy,” Stocks said. “Those assets can be built upon and will help provide jobs for us now, for our children in the future, and will also help to expand our tax base, easing the burden on homeowners, businesses and other property owners.”

Stocks said while public feedback through the online survey and the Oct. 1 workshop will drive creation of the new economic development plan, it is expected to zero in on several key assets that South Portland can leverage to its advantage. These include: convenient truck, air, sea, and rail transportation; the lowest average rates for commercial rents in the area; the Maine Mall area; the potential of multiple neighborhood-oriented commercial areas, mirroring the Knightville and Willard Square districts; and South Portland’s proximity and ease of access to downtown Portland.

“South Portland is a very attractive place to live,” Stocks said. “But we need to build on all of our strengths and our historical foundation of a city of commerce. An updated plan that accurately reflects the current diversity of our economy and workforce is needed.”

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