SOUTH PORTLAND — On Nov. 5, the city council did not express an immediate desire to update the South Portland Economic Development Plan, but councilors stated that workforce development is a priority through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city’s Economic Development Plan, approved by city council in March of 2016, has a mission to expand the non-residential tax base, maintain jobs and maintain the quality of life for residents, William Mann, economic development director for South Portland, said. Councilors at the time wanted to grow the economy, but also keep the “charm and character” of the community.

Due to COVID-19, the changing of city council members since 2016, and the number of years that have passed, City Manager Scott Morelli said that it may be appropriate to look over the Economic Development Plan and make any additional changes.

Since the pandemic hit, the city’s economic development department has been focused on assisting businesses, Mann said.

“COVID has changed everything, every aspect of our lives,” he said.

Mann said that the department has worked to achieve the five goals of the plan — business retention and attraction, entrepreneurial and small business development, workforce development and employer connections and advance development of underutilized properties — while providing support for businesses and restaurants in South Portland.

Loan and grant programs have opened up, he said. The economic development department also created the SOPO To-Go program for restaurants in the spring when the pandemic hit, which allowed for people to win gift cards to local eateries.

Councilors thanked Mann and his department for the work they are doing. They were in agreement that continued support of South Portland’s businesses was important during the pandemic.

Because of current circumstances and the fact that not every aspect of the Economic Development Plan has been hit yet, there isn’t a rush to update the plan, said councilor April Caricchio. She doesn’t want the city to spend unnecessary money to create an updated version.

“There’s a lot left to do and I think really even prioritizing what is there and making some plans for just focusing on that would probably be enough to keep you busy for a long time,” she said.

Support for essential workers and focusing on wages and poverty is important, Caricchio said. Portland voters approved for a $15 minimum wage increase on Nov. 3, and she could see South Portland looking at something similar in the future.

“Essential workers are holding us together,” she said. “We want to keep that in mind as we move forward.”

Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo echoed Caricchio’s thoughts, adding that the economic development department might want to think about additional ways to reach out to businesses, through newsletters or an email listing, to show support.

“So many things up in the air and we’re not sure what our economy is going to look like,” she said. “Probably for me one of the most important things to focus on is the continued support of businesses, thinking of new ways to do that.”

In the short term, councilor Sue Henderson said that she agreed with the city supporting local businesses, connecting people with one another, and finding new ways to brainstorm.

“I think we’re going to grow from the ground up,” she said.

Even after the pandemic, the city should include a section in its plan about working directly with residents in need and help them find opportunities, said councilor Misha Pride.

“I’ve always thought that was the most appropriate use of city assets, to help our residents and make sure we’re developing economically in a way that benefits our residents by creating jobs for them, by helping them find those opportunities, and being a support system for them,” he said. “I don’t want to call it a pipe dream because I think it’s do-able eventually, but it is something we’ve got to work towards slowly.”

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