2015-10-09 / Front Page

Public invited to weigh in on city’s economic future

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Rick Towle, points out an opportunity for the city at an Oct. 1 brainstorming session, attended by more than 50 local residents. The event, sponsored by the South Portland Economic Development Committee, was held to collate ideas for a new economic development plan, the city’s first since 1977. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Rick Towle, points out an opportunity for the city at an Oct. 1 brainstorming session, attended by more than 50 local residents. The event, sponsored by the South Portland Economic Development Committee, was held to collate ideas for a new economic development plan, the city’s first since 1977. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Turnout was light, but interest strong in an Oct. 1 public workshop designed to help chart South Portland’s economic course for generation to come.

About 55 people attended the two-hour session at the Nelson Road community center, crowded to one side of the senior wing, using only half of the tables set up for the event. Still, although fewer people made the event than had been hoped, those who set aside part of their Thursday evening to participate had the chance to influence the creation if an economic development plan due to be completed by the end of the year.


Ed Palmer, general manager of the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks, takes ideas from his table at an Oct. 1 brainstorming session, attended by more than 50 South Portland residents. The event, sponsored by the South Portland Economic Development Committee, was held to collate ideas for a new economic development plan, the city’s first since 1977. (Duke Harrington photo) Ed Palmer, general manager of the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks, takes ideas from his table at an Oct. 1 brainstorming session, attended by more than 50 South Portland residents. The event, sponsored by the South Portland Economic Development Committee, was held to collate ideas for a new economic development plan, the city’s first since 1977. (Duke Harrington photo) That strategic plan, commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Committee (SPEDC), will be used by city officials as a roadmap in determining which projects to pursue in the future. And the plan, to be created by Karl Seidman, a consultant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could guide the way for many years to come. According to SPEDC spokesman Peter Stocks, South Portland’s current economic development plan has not been revised since 1977.

Following presentation of research conducted thus far by Seidman and Rebecca Karp — president of Karp Strategies, who is assisting Seidman, having previously aided him in drafting a similar plan for Portland — workshop attendees broke into small groups to decide who the city should priorities its efforts, as it seeks to spur economic investment in the city.

“This isn’t just a plan to sit on a shelf, this is the plan for action going forward,” Karp said. “At this meeting we are getting folk’s initial ideas, and then we are going to be going back and refining our recommendations based on what we heard.”

While the Oct. 1 workshop was essentially a brainstorming session, a second meeting, due for a November date yet to be determined, will ask city residents to narrow in on specific strategies put forth as options by Seidman and Karp.

“We would love for even more folks in the room next time,” Karp said. “It’s incredibly important.”

“We’re making decisions about what the goals of the economic development strategy should be, and what activities should be undertaken, but we really need to produce something city residents will support,” Seidman said. “If we go off and produce something that does not reflect what residents themselves want to see happen in the city, it’s not going to have the political support necessary to implement.

“We want to plan to benefit the community,” Seidman said. “It’s not there to benefit just a few people. It’s really there to produce real results for the community, whether that’s more jobs, or increasing the tax base to improve services, or whether its to bring business into the city, or to help people start businesses here. We want the plan to improve economic outcomes and quality for life for South Portland residents, so it’s important for them to tell us, what are the outcomes and changes they want to see.”

“Having a plan allows you to have some influence on what kind of development happens, what kind of business happens in this city, and who benefits from that,” Seidman said.

Among the key economic development tools likely to be in the plan are five introduced by Seidman at the Oct. 1 workshop. These include:

 Establishing a modified Main Street program, different in South Portland because it has several neighborhood centers, rather than one unifying downtown area,

 Targeting business growth to specific areas, by reaching out to property owners to help them connect with investment partners to develop “under-utilized” sites, possibly to include city participation in brownfield studies for environmental cleanup,

 Creating a small business entrepreneurial program, with a component focused on so-called ‘youth entrpreneurship.”

 Combating what Seidman called “a growing distrust with government” by launching a community outreach program to spread information on development projects, creating “a trusted review process,’ and empowering residents to participate in civic affairs, and

 Launching workforce employment initiatives, by working with businesses to provide training residents need to get skilled jobs.

Meanwhile, the themes that emerged from the workshop included general concepts, such as a desire to lure in businesses, develop under-utilized sites across the city and to reduce poverty, plus more specific ideas, such as partnering with Southern Maine Community College for workforce education, creation of an actual office of economic development within city hall, launching a branding and marketing campaign for the city, and investing in infrastructure needed to create a more robust internet network.

“What we found out tonight is there’s really no substitute for a bunch of people sitting around a table just banging ideas back and forth,” said Ross Little, chairman of the city’s economic development committee. “We made a lot of progress tonight. We’re going to look at the commonalities of what was raised for ideas at the different tables here tonight, and at the differences, too, and report out to the city council on Oct. 14.”

According to Little, the committee’s presentation to the city council will include not only a summary of the Oct. 1 workshop, but full results of the data Seidman and Karp have collected thus far on the current state of South Portland’s economic health.

Seidman, who was paid $25,000 for his work, using money available in various TIF funds across the city, said he has put in “countless hours,” compiling that portrait. Some of the information released already from his work paints a concerning portrait about the financial future of South Portland residents.

According to Seidman, 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. Median household income in South Portland is 8 percent below that of 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.

“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.”

Among the key assets workshop attendees said South Portland can leverage to its advantage, are 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 city of commerce. An updated plan that accurately reflects the current diversity of our economy and workforce is needed.”

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