Fifteen people ran for mayor last year, and they all agreed on one thing: Portland was missing the boat on economic development.
The city has tremendous advantages, including access to all modes of transportation, livable neighborhoods and a cultural life that puts it on multiple magazine best-of lists, but it also has a reputation as a hard place to do business. A planning and permitting process that looks like a maze, a City Hall that comes across as unfriendly to business and elected and appointed officials who can’t get out of each other’s way are commonly held impressions that stop the city from reaching its potential.
The election is over, a mayor was sworn in, so has anything changed? There were promising signs this week that they have.
On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Brennan kicked off his economic development campaign.
This is not a study. There have been enough of those, and an economic development plan was drafted and approved by the City Council last fall. Instead, this is an implementation plan that should show results.
Its elements include a review of the city’s permitting and inspection process by a Franklin, Mass., consulting group in partnership with Charles Colgan, the chairman of the community planning and development program at the Muskie School of Public Service. If there are really problems that put Portland at a competitive disadvantage built into its codes and regulations, they will find them and propose changes. Not part of the plan, but a fortunate coincidence, is that the city is ready to hire a new planning director, who will be charged with providing new leadership in a department that has been a focus criticism.
Another positive element of the campaign is Brennan’s promise to listen to existing local businesses and make them the focus of the city’s growth strategy. Too often, communities waste effort competing with each other to attract new business, when they could gain more and spend less by working with local businesses that want to expand. Brennan has pledged to visit 50 local businesses by the end of the year, meet a wide range of employers and to listen to their concerns.
After a few lean years, things are starting to look up in Portland on the development front. How the city manages the next wave of economic activity will determine whether Portland can finally take advantage of its many strengths.