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Retiring city manager reflects on 40 years of change in Portland

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Retiring city manager reflects on 40 years of change in Portland

PORTLAND — When Joe Gray flew into the city more than 40 years ago, he arrived on the only airline serving the then shoebox-sized Portland Municipal Airport.

The airline, Northeast, no longer exists. But the airport does, and has now grown to several terminals with service from seven major airlines.

Gray, who will retire from his post as city manager this week after 10 years at the helm of City Hall, cites the Portland International Jetport as one example of the growth Maine's largest city has seen since he stepped off that plane.

He announced his decision in December, although last Friday he said he had made up his mind in October, while on vacation in Greece.

"My wife (Marie) had been retired for a year and a half," Gray, 66, said. "She said to me, 'when are you going to do it?'"

He waited two months, until his 10-year anniversary as city manager, to make his decision public. He said he also didn't want people to think his retirement was linked with the decision made in November to begin popular election of the city's mayor.

Gray's career with the city began more than 40 years ago as a planner. He started after initially working for the Portland Renewal Authority on the federal Model Cities Program, and credited that program with helping to make Portland the well-liked place it is today.

"Neighborhood organizations grew out of Model Cities. And that led to Portland West and Parkside and those groups," Gray said. He referred to the collective as "the quiet good," a term borrowed from a friend.

"People here are willing to give time and energy," he said. "That makes us different."

Portland has consistently been on national "best of" lists in the past decade. Gray said the city's ability to keep its urban area populated, while reinventing the Old Port and downtown, after department stores disappeared, makes Portland different.

"Take Providence, for example," the Rhode Island native said. "We haven't seen the amount of (downtown residential) abandonment like other northeast cities."

Gray also cites Ocean Gateway, the growth of cruise ship business and the city's trail system as great accomplishments for the city during the past few decades. He said he'd like to see Bayside and the Eastern Waterfront continue to develop, and briefly lamented the development projects that were stalled in those parts of the city because of the economy.

"I hope the visions for those areas can be accomplished," Gray said. "Those (projects) would have been transforming."

Gray specifically cited the failed Bay House condominium project planned for the uplands in the Eastern Waterfront as one he would have liked to have seen come to fruition.

He also mentioned the scrapped Waterview tower condos that had been planned for Bayside as a project that would have filled the hole in that neighborhood.

He said he regrets that the city has never found a more sustainable way to fund its budget, and relies too much on property taxes.

"That (property tax reliance) has been an obstacle," Gray said. "The last three years, especially, were tough with layoffs and service cuts."

For 20 years, Gray was the city planning director. He became city manager in 2000, following the death of his predecessor, Bob Ganley.

He and Marie didn't think they'd stay in Portland when they moved here from Washington, D.C. He expected to build his resume and move to a bigger city.

"My wife and I liked it here," he said. They raised their family in Parkside, where they still live. The Grays also like to spend time at their seasonal cottage on Peaks Island.

"It's nice to have the urban experience and then something totally different on the island," Gray said.

Gray said he will miss the challenges of managing City Hall, because he likes being a problem solver and having to prioritize several issues each day.

And although he is retiring from City Hall, he said he is open to working in a part-time capacity as a consultant for people interested in doing business in Portland.

"I'm going to take some time to relax," he said. His first grandchild was born last year, and he plans to travel to New York this month for an extended visit.

"We have a lot of friends (in New York City)," Gray said. "My wife's family is from there."

Gray is scheduled to speak at the Portland Community Chamber's Eggs & Issues event Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 a.m. at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. He said he plans to present a perspective of changes in Portland over the past 40 years.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net