SOUTH PORTLAND — The former general manager of the Maine Red Claws, one of the men behind a planned hotel, arena and office project in Portland, has been hired to help bring businesses to South Portland as assistant city manager.
Jon Jennings, who helped bring the NBA Development League team to Maine in 2009, accepted the city’s job offer late last week and plans to begin his new job March 18.
“I’ve enjoyed the private sector, but I’ve always had a passion for public service,” said Jennings, who was appointed to the Cumberland Town Council last month.
In South Portland, Jennings will focus on efforts to attract businesses and jobs. He said he also will retain his ties to the project in Portland, which is trying to land businesses as tenants.
The Forefront at Thompson’s Point is envisioned as a mixed-use facility with a basketball arena, a hotel, a restaurant, a sports medicine lab and office buildings.
There was some confusion Wednesday about Jennings’ future role in the project.
A news release from South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey did not mention Jennings’ role in the project, but did say he is a partner in the Red Mango Frozen Yogurt store at the Maine Mall.
“To our knowledge, his involvement in the Thompson’s Point project is pretty much finished,” said South Portland Human Resources Director Don Brewer.
Brewer would not release a copy of Jennings’ resume or cover letter Wednesday. Gailey, who is on vacation, could not be reached.
Jennings is one of three general partners in The Forefront at Thompson’s Point. The others are Chris Thompson and Bill Ryan Jr.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Jennings said his role in the development was to see the project through the permitting and licensing process, and advocate for tax breaks. Those pieces are now in place.
“I’m not as involved in it as much any longer,” he said.
He called back, however, saying he did not want to give the impression that he is no longer a partner.
“I’m still very much involved in it,” said Jennings, although he has not invested money in the project.
Dan Boxer, an adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said there is potential for a conflict of interest if Jennings advocates for the Portland project and the city of South Portland.
“You can’t have the same duty of loyalty to two different people and not have a conflict,” he said.
Jennings’ new employer and one of his development partners said they aren’t worried about a potential conflict.
“Jon is an exceptionally talented guy with a ton of political experience,” said Chris Thompson. “He knows what is ethical and what is not. I’m not at all concerned.”
The developers are still locking in financing for the first phase of The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, which is estimated to cost upwards of $100 million, Thompson said.
The group is close to signing tenants for the development, including a major office tenant, he said, but he would not disclose who those tenants are.
There has been speculation that South Portland-based WEX, formerly Wright Express, is a prospective tenant. WEX officials have confirmed that the company is exploring its options for expansion but would not comment about Thompson’s Point.
South Portland’s former assistant city manager, Erik Carson, who resigned in August, suspected that Portland was trying to lure WEX, although Portland officials denied that.
South Portland and Portland are among six communities that have agreed to not “poach” businesses from each other by luring them to move with tax breaks or other incentives. The six communities, which created the Greater Portland Economic Development Corp., are setting protocols to give each community a fair shot at landing businesses that decide to move to or expand in the region.
South Portland Mayor Tom Blake said 80 percent of Jennings’ time as assistant city manager will be spent on economic development.
Even so, he said he is not concerned about any potential conflict of interest, which he assumes was covered in Gailey’s negotiations.
“There’s no question in my mind they covered that,” Blake said.
He said he is excited to have Jennings working for the city.
“I wanted the best person possible,” Blake said. “I wanted a really gregarious person. I wanted somebody that people liked to deal with. This guy fits that bill.”
Jennings’ annual salary in South Portland will be $86,000.
He has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and a background in public service that includes jobs in the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the city’s news release.
Jennings was president and general manager of the Red Claws until June. Since then, he has been concentrating on The Forefront at Thompson’s Point.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: