2016-02-19 / Community

City needs to be proactive about economic development

Guest Column
By Ross Little

In the coming months, if you’re headed to the movies at Clark’s Pond, you’ll notice some changes. Bob’s, HomeGoods and Marshalls are all headed to their new homes in Scarborough, leaving a vast amount of retail space vacant in South Portland. Unfortunately, the exodus of these businesses is part of a trend. Over the past few years, on the economic front, we, as a city, have been steadily losing ground to our neighbors. Our City’s tax base has not kept pace with Portland’s. Our employment growth has been flat since 2006. We haven’t kept pace with expansion in Scarborough or Westbrook. There is currently a glut of vacant office space in South Portland.

These are a few of the findings of the South Portland Economic Development Committee, which it has been my honor to chair over the last year. The committee is a group of ordinary residents who are appointed and tasked by the city council to provide business advice to them. To this end, the committee commissioned and, over the last eight months, has been working on a new Economic Development Plan for our city. That report was delivered to the council this past Monday.

Our plan considered all types of demographic and economic data. The committee undertook an extensive consultation process that included an online survey of residents, public meetings and meetings with business and community leaders. It is, in fact, the first economic plan that South Portland has had since 1997.

So what does it say? Well, in a nutshell, we, the committee, found that South Portland is at a crossroads. For many years, our city did well because of its geographic advantages and its reputation as a favorable place to live and conduct business. We have not, however, consistently and pro-actively addressed economic development.

For example, while South Portland still maintains a strong base of employers, it has recently experienced sharply rising poverty rates, little overall growth in our economic base, and controversies that have affected our business friendly reputation. In contrast to South Portland, our neighbors have aggressively pursued new businesses and real estate projects, and developed strategies to grow their tax bases.

This is an important point for all of us. Since 2000, our population has increased by 7 percent. Our poverty rate, over that same period, has doubled. Both of those numbers represent rates that are much greater than the same rates for Maine in general. When our tax base shrinks, not only do all homeowners face rising property tax rates, but, significantly, we lose our ability to look after people on the margins – our poor and elderly.

Ironically, in the face of rising poverty rates, households that earn more than $100,000 in South Portland (in that same time frame) have spiked sharply, rising by 169 percent. The committee’s opinion is that we all need to be concerned about an economic situation producing such disparate outcomes for different segments of our population. We believe that we all want our city to continue being an affordable place for everybody, a place for all of our citizens to live and work, and raise their families.

If that’s the goal, then South Portland needs to move to attain its proportionate share of regional economic growth. We need to market and position ourselves as a competitive place to locate, start and grow a business. We need to do more work to retain and grow existing businesses and to attract new ones. We need to actively foster entrepreneurs and small businesses. We need to identify innovative strategies to attract new businesses to South Portland. Zoning, permitting and smart growth all have to be reconsidered. In short, we cannot sit and wait for investment to find us.

In the course of our study, the committee heard again and again that people love living here. They love their neighborhoods. They want green sustainable neighborhoods that are walkable, have businesses in them and that they can easily get to on their bikes and in their sneakers. But they also understand that if we are going to preserve our diversity, if our city is going to continue being an affordable place for all of our citizens to live and work, and put their kids through school, then we need to find good paying, steady jobs for our residents, the kind that light industry, engineering, manufacturing, warehousing and medical research provide. It’s great to have good restaurants and the Maine Mall in our corner but, to succeed, our city has to be a place where people have diverse career choices.

Happily, our study found that we do have a large and diverse economic base with many strengths. We possess an educated workforce, historic neighborhoods and a growing self-employment sector. We have many natural and recreational amenities. This is a great place to live. We, the committee, think it will continue to be, for all of us, if we move now to build on our strengths and expand our capacity for economic development.

In conclusion, I want to say that it is the committee’s strong hope that nobody will regard this plan as just dry technical reading about economics, tax bases and growth rates. This is the first economic development plan we’ve had in almost 20 years. A lot has happened. We believe this is a plan that recognizes the need and importance of advancing and sharing community goals. We need to talk to one another. Hopefully, this report is the opening of an important conversation about the future of South Portland, about what we all want our city to be. We hope that everybody will read it, consider it and participate in this process as it moves forward.

The report can be accessed at the city manager’s office at South Portland City Hall or athttp://www.southportland.org/ departments/economic-and-communitydevelopment/ economic-developmentplanning process/.

The South Portland Economic Development Committee consists of volunteers appointed by city council. The committee is tasked with promoting business in South Portland and providing advice to council. This report, commissioned by the committee, is the first economic development plan for South Portland since 1997. Ross Little, current chairman of the EDC, is a retired 17 yearresident of South Portland.

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