March 11, 2010

Portland alerted to impact of job sprawlCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE


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Staff Writer

The Portland metro area ranks high in a national study meant to show how employment moving from downtowns to suburbs -- a trend called job sprawl -- hurts economic productivity and creates unsustainable and inefficient development.

The study is being released today by the Brookings Institution, a public policy research group based in Washington, D.C. It concludes that from 1998 to 2006, nearly every major metro area had a drop in the share of jobs located downtown, as employment moved to farther-out suburbs.

The Brookings report also examined 53 smaller metro areas. It ranked the Portland-South Portland-Biddeford region sixth as having the most job sprawl.

The report urges policymakers to consider the effect of job sprawl as states make decisions about spending federal stimulus money.

However, a close look at the data and land-use patterns here also suggests that the study does not fully reflect the picture in southern Maine, where there are recent indications that changing demographics, volatile gasoline prices and other factors are beginning to steer development back toward city centers.

Job sprawl undermines the economic health of cities and regions, Brookings said, by adding to the cost of infrastructure, increasing energy use and commuting times, and reducing the ability of businesses to interact with each other.

In issuing the report just as the federal government releases billions of dollars for roads, buildings and energy investments to fight the recession, Brookings hopes policymakers will consider how the money can encourage job growth in city centers.

''As we start adding new jobs and growing the economy again, we need to think about where those jobs are going,'' said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research analyst for Brookings.

Portland's high job sprawl ranking stems from the use of census and zip code data to define central business districts. The study breaks out job growth in three concentric rings -- one within three miles of downtown, a second within three to 10 miles, and a third within 10 to 35 miles.

In southern Maine, that outer ring includes Lewiston-Auburn, Bath-Brunswick, Biddeford-Saco, Freeport and Sanford, all of which have central business districts. So it's misleading to conclude that employment created in those distinct centers contributes to job sprawl in Portland.

The Brookings figures do show that all three rings of the Portland metro area recorded job growth from 1998 to 2006. Notably, the most growth was in the three-to-10-mile ring, essentially the suburbs adjacent to Portland, such as Westbrook and Falmouth.

Asked about the distinctions, Kneebone acknowledged that the classification of central business district data does affect the sprawl ranking in various regions of the country.

Portland's job shift away from the urban core was slower than in many other regions, she said. And the concentration of growth in nearby suburbs may not be a bad thing, she said, unless it signals the start of greater job shifts to more distant communities.

That doesn't appear to be happening, said Christian McNeil, a spokesman for GrowSmart Maine, a group in Yarmouth that promotes managed development.

Southern Maine is seeing a wave of commercial development in central business districts, he noted. Projects under way, planned or completed include Freeport Village Station, renovation of the Portland Public Market building, the Intermed office tower in Portland, millyard renovations in Saco and Biddeford, and Maine Street Station in Brunswick.

Those and other projects have gained traction primarily since 2006, after the Brookings study period. They're happening against a backdrop of volatile gas prices, which are discouraging long commutes, and an aging population that wants to be closer to city services.

But the report does identify important, less obvious downsides from job sprawl, McNeil said, picking up on the subtle impact on innovation. It notes that decentralized employment reduces interaction among businesses and workers, reducing the sharing of knowledge and the ability to develop clients and contacts.

Southern Maine has a chance to cultivate innovation, McNeil said, through active business districts such as the arts and technology communities evolving in Portland, Westbrook and Brunswick. Benefits can be as simple as running into a client at a coffee shop.

''Those kinds of interactions are a lot harder to come by in suburban office parks,'' McNeil said, ''or when your workers are spending three hours a day in a driver's seat.''

To encourage compact business centers, GrowSmart is promoting a $27 million bond package that would offer financial incentives to build downtown and redevelop historic properties. A legislative committee is considering the Communities for Maine's Future bond, which would need voters' approval.

The bond, McNeil said, is an example of how Maine policymakers can discourage the job sprawl that Brookings has identified.

It's also in line with recommendations the research group made to Maine three years ago in a landmark report.

The Charting Maine's Future report said the state can reach a new level of prosperity, in part by preserving vibrant business centers and rural open spaces -- its so-called quality of place.

That message comes through in the job sprawl study, said Michael LeVert, Maine's state economist. The quality of place that attracts productive employees is often a combination of vibrant downtowns for work and nearby open space for recreation. Momentum is building in Maine, LeVert said, to seek that balance.

''That holds the key to economic growth,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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