PORTLAND – At the end of his decade as city manager, Joe Gray says some things never change.

The architecture along Congress Street, for instance.

But Gray, speaking Thursday at the Portland Regional Chamber’s monthly breakfast, said Portland has changed where it counts, evolving in the past 40 years from a relatively isolated town into a diverse, connected and culturally rich city.

Gray, who took an urban planning job in Portland in 1969, is retiring from the city’s top job today.

He told the several hundred business people who attended the breakfast that when he came to Portland, he arrived on now-defunct Northeast Airlines, which was the only passenger carrier operating out of Portland. The city had limited bus service, and Interstate 295 had not been built.

Today, buses provide hourly service to Boston, and seven airlines fly 45 times daily out of the Portland International Jetport, which is in the midst of a $75 million expansion, he said.

Gray praised Portland’s rich arts community, it three professional sports teams and its nationally recognized restaurant scene.

And he said Portland’s diverse population is one of the city’s greatest assets.

Through the years, he said, Portland has retained its character thanks to effective planning.

“We didn’t tear down the architectural fabric of the town,” he said, unlike other cities in the Northeast that went through urban renewal in the 1960s.

Chris Hall, senior vice president of government affairs for the Portland Regional Chamber, called Gray’s presentation one of the best in five years.

“He did a great job portraying the progress of the city. Sometimes you lose sight of that, with the day-to-day concerns everyone has,” Hall said.

Gray also discussed Portland’s evolving economy, which he said is increasingly reliant on tourism and life science and biotechnology firms, and less tied to manufacturing.

And he said the next city manager must form a partnership and have “good chemistry” with the city’s popularly elected, full-time mayor, a post that Portland voters approved in November.

Gray also discussed Portland’s future and upcoming challenges.

He called “problematic” the city’s reliance on property taxes to fund its government, programs and facilities, such as the Barron Center, which provides long-term care to the elderly.

“We run a number of operations for a city our size,” he said in an interview.

“It adds to the cost of local government. It’s important, but it costs money.”

Gray is hopeful that the state will one day grant Portland the right to impose new revenue-generating taxes, which he said could help pay for capital investments and fund the operating budget.

Hall characterized Gray as a well-respected leader.

“I think Joe has overcome the friction everyone experiences as city manager, and he has worked toward longer goals. It’s like managing a baseball team — the complaints mount up,” he said. “I think Joe … has worked toward longer goals, and the payoff was in (his) presentation of progress.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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