The LePage administration giveth and it taketh away.

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development has stripped the city of South Portland of its “business friendly” designation because of a local ordinance passed in 2014 that blocks tar sands oil from being exported from the city’s harbor.

This is the first time a community has lost certification since Gov. Paul LePage launched the program three years ago. The revocation was first reported by the South Portland weekly newspaper, the Sentry.

South Portland officials, however, don’t seem too upset.

City Councilor Claude Morgan said he doesn’t believe the loss of its “business friendly” status will hurt the city.

“The real facts are on the ground,” he said. “We have a tremendous mix of retail and large businesses here and the support is overwhelmingly positive.”

Councilor Tom Blake said the certification didn’t mean much anyway.

“It was kind of a joke just to get it,” he said. “And if the governor can just squash it with no review or investigation, that’s ludicrous.”

Doug Ray, spokesman for DECD, could not say when the decision was made but said the city was notified back on Feb. 20, not long after Portland Pipe Line Corp. sued the city in an effort to overturn the ordinance.

Asked who actually made the decision to strip South Portland of its “business friendly” status, Ray would only say that it was the “administration.”

“At time of certification … South Portland demonstrated a business-friendly approach to partnering with the private sector with a goal of attracting new private investment leading to new career opportunities for Maine people,” Ray wrote in an email. “The Administration is very disappointed and finds it hard to believe that local elected leaders in South Portland would then turn around and pass an ordinance that is clearly anti-business, anti-growth and anti-jobs.

“What message does this send to the business community that might be left wondering, what business sector will be targeted next?”

South Portland city councilors approved the so-called “Clear Skies” ordinance last July. Eight months before that, residents had rejected a referendum that would have allowed only the unloading of oil in South Portland.

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. filed its lawsuit in federal court two months ago.

Morgan, who was elected in part because of his support of the “Clear Skies” ordinance, said he was surprised by the LePage administration’s decision and called it “short-sighted.”

“Business friendly isn’t just about tax rates. It’s about workforce and quality of life,” he said. “South Portland puts the health of its residents at the top of any list.”

Blake was more pointed in his criticism.

“I would think there would be some kind of formal letter from the state, but I’m not surprised. This is indicative of how the governor does business,” Blake said.


Ray confirmed that the state did not send a letter. The decision was relayed by DECD Commissioner George Gervais to South Portland’s assistant city manager and economic development director, Jon Jennings. Jennings did not return a call for comment on Friday.

Linda Cohen, the city’s mayor and president of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, said she’s disappointed but confident the city will remain business friendly whether the governor wants to acknowledge it or not.

“We were taking care of our businesses before and we’ll continue to take care of them now that this has been taken away,” she said.

LePage launched the mostly ceremonial “business friendly” program in March 2012 as a way to reward communities for their efforts to attract and retain business.

Since then, 31 communities have been granted “business friendly” status, according to Ray.

Communities seeking certification must submit a six-page application, written largely in a narrative format, explaining what they’ve done to promote business development. The program also randomly surveys 10 businesses in each community and seeks letters of support from businesses and comment from community members.

A seven-member panel of state officials and volunteers reviews the applications individually and as a group before recommending certifiable communities to LePage and Gervais.

South Portland first applied for certification in 2012 but was not chosen.

The city reapplied in 2013, though, and was granted “business friendly” status, which comes with a certificate and a sign. Communities also receive extra points on their applications for block grants – federal money that is disseminated by the state through a competitive application process.

South Portland residents did not show LePage much support during the 2014 election. Only 33 percent voted for LePage, a Republican, compared to 57 percent who voted for Democrat Mike Michaud.

Chris Hall, president of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, said the revocation was a strong statement from the administration, but he declined to offer an opinion.

“To the extent that (the administration) is echoing the concerns of some in the business community, that makes sense,” he said. “Whether this is the right move, I don’t know.”

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