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SOUTH PORTLAND — After years of experience assembling teams, Economic Director Jon Jennings said Monday he is happy to have joined one in city government.
“I love the great group of professionals, it’s the best part of the job,” he said.
Appointed to the post in mid-March, Jennings said his role fostering economic development has a range of implications for the city.
“On any given day you deal with a company the size of Texas Instruments or Maine Mall, and in the afternoon you are working with Otto Pizza to come in,” he said.
Whether walking through Knightville to learn what residents and business owners think about growth in the area north of City Hall, or meeting with City Manager Jim Gailey and other city officials to talk about next year’s projects on Main Street, Jennings said balance and collaboration are key elements in his approach.
“We talk about the future and how to map out the future with everyone in the room,” the Cumberland resident said.
With growth in Knightville, potential growth in Thornton Heights once infrastructure work is completed next year, and the end of property tax disputes with Maine Mall owner General Growth Properties, Jennings has an optimistic outlook on the city.
It does not hurt to have more than a dozen new restaurants open this year, either, he said.
“They are the ultimate entrepreneurs,” Jennings said. “So many hours go into making a restaurant successful.”
Jennings is a former Boston Celtics assistant coach and director of player development; White House and U.S. Department of Justice staffer, and aide to former U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the current U.S. secretary of state. He is also a co-founder and former president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League.
Since taking over as the city’s economic director, Jennings said he has recused himself from the hotel and arena development complex on Portland’s Thompson’s Point, and decided against running for a full term on the Cumberland Town Council, where he was appointed to fill a vacancy last January.
Jennings said he is wary of a proposed waterfront ordinance designed to limit the importation of Canadian tar sands oil into the city. He said his apprehension comes in the breadth of ordinance language, which would ban expansion of petroleum-related industries, and the potential effect on ancillary businesses like marinas seeking to add fuel sales to boat owners.
“I would not take a back seat to anybody with my concern for the environment,” Jennings said. “(But) I am concerned about the impact on future opportunities for existing companies and the smaller companies that get wrapped up into the scope of the ordinance.”
He said economic growth in South Portland is predicated on reuse of existing land, ensuring current business owners have their needs addressed, and drawing residents to the city.
“The primary factor is the retention of existing businesses and owners,” he said. “I take it as a personal failure to lose businesses from South Portland, particularly if I am given an opportunity to work with them before they make any decisions.”
A study and May workshop on land use in the Mill Creek area, sponsored by Sustain Southern Maine, allowed business owners and residents to provide input on redevelopment of commercial land bounded by Broadway, Ocean Street, Waterman Drive and A Street.
Jennings said he supports one of the workshop suggestions, to allow taller buildings in the business district, where available land is limited.
“There is an expansive water view here not found in many other places,” he noted.
Jennings also said his predecessor deserves credit for a recent designation by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development that South Portland is “business friendly.”
“Erik Carson deserves credit for starting processes and getting us down the path,” Jennings said about the former assistant city manager and economic director who resigned a year ago.
The designation is also a measure of how the city, business owners and Southern Maine Community College officials collaborate to train students to fill city jobs, he said.
Jennings said the school can play a part in the expansion of Casco Bay Steel, off Wallace Avenue, and Allagash International on Madison Street.
His second-floor City Hall office is more accessible to visitors than ones he had in Washington, D.C., and he works in a more direct fashion with the public, but Jennings said the speed of government is inherently slower than the speed of business.
“You have to constantly remember that things do not just happen overnight,” he said. “It takes time. You can put the infrastructure in place, but you can’t wave a magic wand.”