When I was a young reporter, I was handed a news release from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that warned drivers about an unusually high number of fatal vehicle crashes involving roving moose.

I did some research and learned about moose behavior, how in the spring they like to eat salty plants by the roadside, and I got a sufficiently alarming quote from a public safety official. (“Moose are everywhere, and they are practically invisible at night.”)

I also did some math, and proclaimed, “If vehicle-moose collisions continue at this rate, this will be Maine’s deadliest year on record.”

An older, wiser editor took that out. Then the snow melted, new plants sprang up and the moose went back into the woods like they always do.

Now that I’m older, an editor and supposed to be wiser, I see “moose stories” everywhere. It’s the mistake we all make when we assume that what’s happening right now is going to keep happening forever.

I think of this now as I watch the political season unfold in Portland.

If you were just coming to town right now, you might be excused for thinking that the big problem facing the city is how we manage out-of-control growth.

But just a few years ago, we thought we had the opposite problem, and it was so acute it made us change our entire form of government.

Let’s review:

Back in 2007 the city issued a request for proposals from developers interested in putting a hotel and office complex on the Maine State Pier, a valuable piece of city-owned property that had been allowed to decay so much that it reportedly needed $18 million in repairs.

Two entries came in from rival builders, Ocean Properties and The Olympia Cos., and discussion about which one was best got heated.

Jim Cloutier, the city councilor most closely associated with the Ocean Properties plan, was defeated in the 2007 election, and John Anton, who was elected in his place, cast the deciding vote to give the contract to Olympia.

In a few months the world financial system melted down, the winning developer pulled out of the deal and the contract was awarded to Ocean Properties, which eventually also bailed out.

People were furious. It was seen as an example of Portland’s inability to get anything done, and it was blamed on our nine city councilors, who were working at cross purposes. Two years later, voters approved a charter change for a full-time, elected-mayor form of government. In 2011 there were 15 candidates for the job and economic development – more economic development – was the top priority for all of them.

Nothing had been built after the Maine State Pier deal fell apart, and there was a sense that nothing would ever get built if we didn’t do something.

It was a moose story. At the time of the election, the national recovery started creeping our way.

Here we are, four years later, and we’ve finally started to see a little growth. There have been some housing projects – both subsidized and market-rate – and a few new hotels open for business. Portland has become a “hot” city, where young people and active retirees are moving in, putting upward pressure on rents and home prices, forcing some people out of the market. Most nights, the line outside the homeless shelter has twice as many people as the shelter can hold. There are not enough places for people to live.

You would think that people would be clamoring for faster growth to meet our needs, but all the recent activism has gone the other way. We saw a lawsuit block a high-rise market-rate housing complex planned for a brownfield in Bayside (the now all-but-dead “midtown” project), a referendum campaign to stop the sale of part of a city-owned park at Congress Square and, this year, another referendum to regulate construction projects that affect views.

The target of that effort is the proposed mixed-use development at the historic Portland Co. site on Fore Street, which could create more jobs, housing, commercial activity and tax revenue than the Maine State Pier complex ever would have – if it can get built.

We hear that if we don’t slow down, we’ll become another Boston. But that’s a moose story, too.

It is a serious mistake to assume that the growth we are seeing will continue in perpetuity. All it will take is a recession or a hike in interest rates and the building boom will turn to bust.

The challenge for everyone in this city is to remember where we’ve been and try to have a little vision.

A city is growing, living thing that changes all the time. We should be wise enough not to forget that.


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