2017-06-30 / Front Page

City to create economic development director job

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Josh Reny, assistant city manager Josh Reny, assistant city manager SOUTH PORTLAND — With an eye toward sparking a boomlet in good, local jobs, the South Portland City Council decided Monday to get the ball rolling by creating one of its own.

Three councilors were absent from the June 26 workshop meeting, but City Manager Scott Morelli said he nonetheless got “clear direction” from the majority on hand. Those four councilors – Maxine Beecher, Linda Cohen, Sue Henderson, and Mayor Patti Smith – were unanimous in urging Morelli to create a new position of economic development director within city hall.

Morelli was not available for comment Tuesday, but Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said the next step would entail crafting a job description, preparatory to advertising the position later in the year. Before the city casts its net, however, the posting will likely come back to the city council for review, Reny said.

“I’m not sure a vote of the council is necessary, but creating a new department within city hall, and a description of the work to be done by it, is something they will certainly be interested in,” Reny said.

The work of both luring businesses to South Portland and supporting those already doling out paychecks within its borders has traditionally fallen to the assistant city manager. That’s been especially true since 2011, when the city council created an economic development committee to advise and aid in that process. Since then, South Portland has gone through three assistants – Erik Carson, Jon Jennings (now city manager in Portland) and, since September 2015, Reny.

“I’ve worked with all three,” said Bob O’Brien, a non-voting member of the committee. “I’m convinced that job is too big for anyone to accomplish in a part-time position.”

While the assistant manager job is fulltime, economic development is, at least in theory, just 50 percent of the job description. However, Reny said, even devoting that much time to that particular aspect of his daily to-do list has been tough over the past year, as South Portland transitioned from longtime manager Jim Gailey, through interim manager Don Gerrish, to Morelli, who came on board three months ago.

“In the past year or so since Jim left, I have not been doing all the much economic development work, just because I’ve been pulled in 100 different directions,” Reny said.

Even before Reny was called upon to prioritize his many hats, the economic development committee was moving toward a proposal to let the assistant manager manage and hire out the economic development job.

In February 2016, the committee presented, and the council adopted, a new 65-page economic development plan, updating a document that had not been touched since 1977. That plan advances five strategic goals:

• Add to the tax base.

• Increase the number of good paying jobs and new entrepreneurs.

• Improve the city’s image as a place to live, work and start a business.

• Reduce poverty and grow a skilled workforce for the future economy.

• Advance plans for a greener, mixed-used, and denser Mill Creek neighborhood.

To achieve those goals, the plan, advanced four strategies:

• Prepare South Portland’s residents for available job opportunities, now and in the future.

• Ensure that all residents are included and able to obtain job training and preparation services.

• Support South Portland’s business community and employers by developing its workforce, through contextualized training and curriculum.

• Increase collaboration among South Portland employers, educational institutions, and service providers, with respect to workforce development services.

However, as O’Brien noted at Monday’s council workshop, those are very high-level deliverables. The full plan recommends about 90 “key tasks” it indicates are needed to enable the four strategies and accomplish the five goals.

And that, said committee chairman Ross Little, is simply too much to heap on the plate of one person, especially one who must juggle a host of other duties.

“We are not doing enough of any of this stuff now,” he said. “And as good as Josh Reny is – and he is excellent, let me tell you – just one person as a half-time job is not enough to take this on.”

According to consultant Karl Seidman, a senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was paid $25,000 to draft the new economic development plan, the result of not having a dedicated business booster in city hall has been obvious.

“South Portland hasn’t been capturing as much of the region’s growth as some other communities,” he said Monday. “It isn’t always recognized as a strong a place to do business as some of the other communities.”

Accordingly, Gerrish, during the lone annual budget developed under his watch, included a $50,408 line item to begin implementing the Seidman plan. According to Morelli’s June 26 memo to the council, that amount of money “represents half of the estimated cost of a full-time position, including salary and benefits.”

The question before the council Monday was whether to go that route and use the money to hire an economic development director to start sometime after Jan. 1, 2018 – with the intention of fully funding the position, and maybe more, next year – or to use those dollars as seed money to help found a quasi-municipal nonprofit economic development corporation.

By way of comparison, Seidman said, Portland has an economic development department with nearly six full-time equivalent employees, all who work on an annual budget of $430,000. Scarborough, on the other hand, has gone the nonprofit route, establishing a group with 10 directors, including the town manager and one town councilor. The Scarborough Economic Development Corporation has two staffers and runs on an annual budget of $233,000 – 92 percent of which is covered by the town.

A number of people spoke in favor of creating and hiring the in-house position, including committee members Joel Ouellette, Martha Riehle and Peter Stocks, as well as City Planner Tex Haeuser and Will Haskell, vice president of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce.

Only one person, Franklin Terrence resident George Corey, spoke against the idea of splitting off economic development duties from Reny’s job description and assigning those tasks to a new hire. The city would be better off, Corey said, to use the available $50,000 to beef up Haeuser’s department.

“Almost anything else other that setting up another office in South Portland’s government would make sense to me,” he said, adding in a separate email to Morelli, “There are no studies that show economic development officers or offices are effective, but they excel at public relations and self promotion. As a result, there are these myths that have grown up around economic development offices and their notable accomplishments, when none can actually be traced to them. So, there is no return on such investment. If you want to spend the money, then spend it directly on public relations, but hiring an economic development office without laying the groundwork makes no sense.”

Those tasked with making the decision felt differently, however.

“I feel like we have had an injustice in the community by having a half-time economic development person,” Smith said. “Our city is growing in a manner that it deserves a fulltime position, and probably a full-time position and a staff person.

“That position as it is just doesn’t work for us. It’s too limited,” Smith said. “We’ve been kind of bumbling along with a half-time position and a planning department that’s woefully understaffed. I’ve seen it for eight years. That’s how long I’ve been a councilor and how long I’ve seen that pattern.”

Cohen, meanwhile, said South Portland has fallen behind, despite a multi-municipal agreement the city signed during the Carson era, under which each town vowed to refrain from poaching existing and potential companies from the others.

“When you’ve got all of these different groups out there that are working on economic development for the region, it’s not funneling all of that attention and activity into one community,” she said. “That’s why for me it makes sense to bring on staff. A dedicated person on staff would be able to not only focus on bringing new business into this community but pay attention to existing businesses that are here and saying, ‘What about me?’”

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