Some problems are too big for any one community to handle, even if that community is Maine’s biggest city.

Kristina Eagan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, speaks to a gathering of faith and immigrant community leaders in July 2019. The agency convened the meeting to help find housing for a large influx of asylum seekers in Portland. Photo by Tom Bell

But now, when Portland faces an issue whose effects and solutions lay at least in part outside its immediate borders, it can look to the Greater Portland Council of Governments for help, as can the other 24 member communities that make up the organization. In the last couple of years, GPCOG has taken a lead role in addressing several major challenges in Cumberland County — opioid addiction, racial inequity, homelessness and transportation, to name a few — the Press Herald reported last week.

It’s a smart approach to tackling regional issues in Maine, where local control and strong municipal governments sometimes make it difficult to come up with and carry out solutions in a cooperative fashion. Other areas of the state should take notice of what GPCOG and their member communities are doing — and how they are doing it.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments began in 1969 as a transportation and regional planning agency. Funded by member dues and federal grants, the organization has long been a player in local and regional politics — one of the many acronym groups found at the table at community meetings.

But the last few years have brought a new executive director, Kristina Egan, and an expanded mission. The organization was now going to act as a capacity-builder for local communities, giving them access to new resources and expertise, and allowing them to better share ideas and explore areas of collaboration.

Since then, GPCOG has been busy. The organization uses the combined buying power represented by its members to get them — and their residents — better deals on items such as storm water consulting, road salt and paper, and they have completed planning projects that municipalities would not have otherwise been able to do.

But GPCOG has also jumped in fill the void on bigger challenges. Recently, they’ve taken a lead role in coordinating the local response to COVID.

Last summer, when hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa arrived in Portland in need of shelter and aid, the organization helped coordinate a temporary housing program, bringing in other communities so that Portland didn’t have to shoulder all the burden.

GPCOG has also taken a leading role in addressing homelessness, something that has long demanded a regional answer but has most often been left to Portland to deal with.

Now, not only has GPCOG brought together stakeholders from across the region to discuss how they can address homelessness as one, they’ve also looked at the causes, such as how the high cost of housing and transportation is hurting low-income workers — identifying an acute problem that can only be solved if all its members work together.

There are many such problems in Maine, where a regional answer is the only one. Housing, transportation, addiction — these challenges and many others don’t stop at one town’s borders, and they often require solutions specific to each region.

For these challenges, whether they are longstanding and continual, such as housing, or they come out of nowhere, such as COVID, communities need a mechanism for finding solutions together. County government has proved too inflexible for this role; in some areas of the state, regional economic development groups have become facilitators of one kind or another.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments is providing another example of how communities can take on some of their biggest challenges, and it’s one others should follow.

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