Picking Portland's mayor: The candidates on economic development and the working waterfront

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PORTLAND — In an effort to stabilize and improve the local economy, city officials have been working with the business community on an economic development plan.

That plan, which is largely finished but awaiting City Council approval, outlines benchmarks for growing the economy, enriching the creative economy and supporting local business.

This week, mayoral candidates outlined their ideas for growing the local economy. Two candidates closely pinned their economic development strategy to that plan. Other candidates echoed elements of the plan.

City Councilor Jill Duson and Jodie Lapchick, both Democrats, said they would try to grow and strengthen the local economy by focusing on the implementation of the city’s plan.

Duson, 57, said she would begin by meeting with businesses that are already here to find ways to strengthen, stabilize and grow them. New businesses should be recruited, but not at the expense of those already in place, she said.

Lapchick, 49, said the key component of the plan is marketing and branding the city. “That’s my background and expertise,” she said.

Lapchick said she is frustrated that more candidates are not publicly embracing the plan, which was built using 10 years of data. “We’re at a great place and I don’t want who gets elected to blow it,” she said.

Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling said he would try to make City Hall more business friendly. City government now looks for problems with business proposals, rather than opportunities, he said.

Strimling, 43, said the mayor needs to be the city’s chief executive officer – “someone who can shake the walls.” He disagreed with the suggestion that the mayor is weakened because the City Charter delegates day-to-day operations, such as hiring, firing and budgeting, to the city manager.

“I think the people of Portland want somebody to be a strong leader, regardless of what people perceive the charter to say or not,” Strimling said. “… I think mayor will be as strong as the individual we put into that position.”

Strimling said the failure to redevelop the Maine State Pier is an example of poor leadership, noting that if he couldn’t secure a $100 million from a willing investor, he would have been fired by his board of directors at LearningWorks.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., the council’s current, and last, appointed mayor, pushed back at that notion, saying the Maine State Pier deal fell through because the developers could not secure financing and state leaders couldn’t work out shoreland zoning issues.

Mavodones, 51, said he would continue work on economic development, noting the redevelopment of the former Cumberland Cold Storage building into offices and the planned development of Thompson’s Point.

Mavodones said he would also work to restore ferry service to Nova Scotia.

Mavodones said he would like to move toward same-day permitting for simple development projects. He’d like city officials to use computers in the field to either print out permits or transmit approvals to City Hall to be mailed out that day.

Former state Sen. Michael Brennan said he would survey and meet with local businesses, noting the city’s economic development plan is “not a plan we should put on a shelf.”

But Brennan, 58, said more attention should be paid to aligning education with workforce development, noting a recent study citing a “skills gap.” Better coordination is needed between the city, business community, the Greater Portland Economic Development Council, local colleges and universities, and hospitals, he said, as well as more early childhood development.

Several candidates said the city’s land use codes need to re-evaluation.

Markos Miller said the city should streamline its development and review process by implement form-based zoning, rather than use-based zoning. Also, the city should encourage small businesses that offer essential goods and services within neighborhoods, he said.

Miller, 43, said a “complete realignment” of the planning process is needed to increase community engagement. Creating a community vision for vacant parcels can create more predictability for developers, he said.

In the short term, Miller said he would jump-start the redevelopment of Bayside, which would create more construction jobs, while creating a dense mixed-use neighborhood for young professionals.

Former state Rep. John Eder said affordable health care, affordable housing and bonding for upgrades to the energy grid are important for economic development.

Eder, 42, said the mayor needs to rally business leaders to lobby the Legislature on bills that affect the implementation of the national affordable health care law. He wants to hire a grant-funded”navigator” at City Hall to help establish health-care co-ops, saying affordable health care will be good for businesses.

Eder said he would like to give tax breaks for affordable housing, while requiring builders to use local workers and pay them a livable wage. More housing will be needed to accommodate a planned increase in population of young professionals, he said.

Bonding to upgrade the energy grid to accommodate alternative energy sources could lower utility rates for businesses, he said.

City Councilor David Marshall said the city is already benefiting from green jobs through a contract to increase energy efficiency in city buildings. 

Incentives are needed for affordable housing, he said, but the city needs to re-examine its codes to allow more residential density in the downtown area and along business corridors.

Marshall, 33, also said building a street-car line would also result in increased economic development. Tampa, Fla., installed a 2.3-mile line, which attracted a $1 billion in real estate development, he said, and Seattle’s 1.3-mile line attracted 6,000 new residential units and 30 million square feet of commercial development.

“This is an example how local governments can use investment in transit in order to stimulate economic development,” he said.

That investment would be significant. Marshall said a street car in Portland, Ore., cost $26 million a mile to build. He would seek financing from grants and federal highway funds.

Jed Rathband, however, said the city needs to stop focusing on “the pie in the sky.” As mayor he said he would work toward a regional economic development plan.

Rathband, 39, said the city needs to find a way to work with “homegrown innovators” and get them to stay in the area. It also needs to look to attract more light industrial and manufacturing jobs to the region. He said much of the insulation used in the state is made in Arizona, so he’d work to bring that production here.

Rathband said the should also focus luring professional services from big cities like Boston and New York, where rents are higher and the quality of life is not as good. “That is a huge opportunity for us,” he said. 

The city needs to be less adversarial with Augusta, he said, and make necessary investments in education.

Christopher Vail said the city should focus on its marine resources and shipping port for economic development.

Vail, 40, said the city is uniquely positioned to attract firms that want to study and experiment with tidal, hydro and wind power. As those technologies are developed, the city should would benefit from more high-paying jobs and lower energy costs, he said.

Ralph Carmona said the city needs to update its Comprehensive Plan. Not only does it need to incorporate the city’s economic development, but it also should focus on improving technological infrastructure, he said. 

Carmona, 60, said the city should invest in “cloud” computing, where businesses could log onto a central website to access information such as traffic congestion and peak and off-peak electricity rates. Such technology would help businesses be more efficient, he said, noting the technology could be paid for through subscriptions.

Carmona said the city needs to prepare for the “migration shift” of people moving into the city. The city must also plan for rising tides along the waterfront, he said.

Waterfront

The candidates also stressed the importance of having a working waterfront.

Only Marshall spoke out against recent zone changes that allow more non-marine uses on Portland’s piers. He voted against the changes when they came before the council.

“I still feel as though that has a negative effect on the fishing industry,” he said.

There is an inherent tension between marine uses, like fishing and tug boats, and non-marine uses, like restaurants and professional office spaces. That tension was illustrated when a law firm relocating to the waterfront complained about the location of storage facility for lobster bait.

Duson said the tension is healthy, but the city should constantly evaluate effects of the zone changes to make sure uses are balanced. Brennan said the changes should be closely monitored to make sure the city “didn’t go too far.”

Vail faulted the council for creating tension along the waterfront. He said there is plenty of room on the waterfront for everyone to get along, citing the tract of undeveloped land along West Commercial Street as a potential growth area.

Miller said the working waterfront should be preserved, because those industries cannot be located anywhere else in the city. Non-marine businesses should be informed they are locating to a working waterfront to avoid friction, he said.

Strimling said the waterfront should be the city’s “crown jewel,” but called West Commercial Street a “wasteland.” Marshall also said the city must work harder to develop that area. Both said the city should work to redevelop parking lots within the central waterfront zone.

Mavodones said he’d work to restore ground fishing along the waterfront, as well as restoring ferry service to Nova Scotia.

Rathband, Marshall and Vail said the city should help better utilize it’s shipping port as an alternative to trucks.

Candidates Charles Bragdon, Peter Bryant, Richard Dodge and Hamza Haadoow did not respond to requests for comments.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements


Eder to skip study abroad if elected

PORTLAND — Former state Rep. John Eder said he will pass up a scholarship to study in Ireland if he’s elected mayor on Nov. 8.

Eder, a student at Southern Maine Community College, was awarded a scholarship from the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Exchange program to spend a semester abroad at the Cork institute of Technology in Cork.

Upcoming candidate forums

• Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Reiche School, sponsored by the West End Neighborhood Association.

• Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at the East End Community School cafeteria, sponsored by the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association.

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