It was all sounding pretty good. A research institute funded by a $100 million donation will be built in Portland.

The goal is not just to educate 2,000 students and provide jobs for faculty and staff, but also to plant the seeds of a high-tech economy that will drive growth for the next century – not just in Maine’s biggest city but in the whole state as well.

The world runs on innovation, but right now almost all the action is in 10 superstar cities, leaving most of the country out. With the founding of Northeastern University’s Roux Institute, Portland has a chance to get into the mix, if not as one of the superstars, then at least as a member of the supporting cast, said benefactor David Roux. He told dignitaries: “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be to Boston what San Jose is to San Francisco.”

Wait. What?

San Jose, California, the old blue-collar city between Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay, is the latest example of the inequality that accompanies the high-tech economy. Despite the influx of investment, which is soon to include a downtown Google campus, about 40 percent of the city’s households are low income. Meanwhile, only about a quarter of the the city’s housing is affordable, and it is disappearing fast as demand drives up prices.

Activists who believe the answer is to boost construction of new housing to accommodate growth by knocking down regulations are running up against activists who want new regulations, including rent control, to protect the people who are threatened by displacement.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The same argument is going on in Portland already, even without the infusion of tech money. The city is in a development boom, but the supply of affordable housing is shrinking. Property taxes are among the highest in the state, but it’s still a struggle to fund the schools. Hotels and office buildings bring people and traffic into the city, but the population grows very slowly because there isn’t room for everyone who wants to live here, displacing families and leaving fewer people behind to pay all the bills.

Do we have to be even more like San Jose?

There might be a better model a little closer to home. That’s the city of Waterville.

A few years ago, Colby College President David Greene announced that his institution was going to get directly involved with the local economy, which hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession.

Colby built a new dormitory in the city’s downtown, putting potential customers in walking distance of local businesses. It also built a downtown hotel that brings visitors into the city, which, like the dorm, is on the city’s tax rolls.

The college committed to using local suppliers whenever possible for materials and labor, even if it had to pay more. And it acted as a recruiter to bring a completely unrelated software company into downtown, giving it rent-free space for a period because it would generate local jobs. An economic impact study estimates that Colby contributed $1.1 billion to the regional economy over a four-year period, benefiting many people who will never set foot on the Colby campus.

“Colleges and universities have a privileged position in this country because we provide a public good,” Greene said in a phone interview last week. “We all have an obligation to contribute in multiple ways.”

Could the Roux Institute serve the same kind of role in Portland as Colby does in Waterville? Not exactly.

Portland has four times the population of Waterville, but Colby and Roux, when it’s fully built out, will both have about 2,000 students. That makes Colby a much bigger part of the local economy. Additionally, many Roux Institute students will be people who are already here, working in companies like L.L. Bean and Maine Medical Center, whereas Colby recruits globally to bring in a new crop of freshmen every fall.

But if the institute really becomes a catalyst for a new economy, it could play a leadership role in it, looking beyond the narrow interests of its students and staff.

Do the leaders of a tech-driven economy have an interest in local schools, affordable housing, public transportation, homelessness, poverty or any of the other municipal concerns that fall outside their primary mission? They better, if the city they have chosen is going to be the kind of place where anyone will want to live or work.

There are probably some great things about San Jose. But it would be nice if, once in a while, these guys would talk about Portland becoming the next Waterville, too.


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