Report: South Portland lags on economic development

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Economic Development Committee members said Monday night that South Portland must continue improving communication with residents and businesses and devote more manpower to growing the city’s economic base.

“The heart of this is very simple … essentially, we have a communication problem,” committee Chairman Ross Little said in the Jan. 9 City Council workshop. “We have a failure to communicate, (and) we’re not promoting South Portland as we should be.”

The city’s newest Economic Development Plan, drafted in late 2015 and approved early last year by the council, advised staff and elected officials in areas of growth, such as aggressively promoting a business-friendly atmosphere and working to retain jobs to attract a younger workforce. 

The most notable suggestion in the EDC plan, which was drafted with help from Karl Seidman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was that the city’s fraught political climate was chipping away at its ability to grow the tax base by attracting new businesses.

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny now serves as the part-time economic development director. Little insisted Monday night, as he and others have previously, that the city needs to devote more time and energy to develop its economic base, whether it’s by hiring a new staff person, or through a public-private partnership.

Councilor Linda Cohen agreed: “Having a part-time economic development director in the fourth-largest city in the state is just not acceptable.”

The committee’s report strongly recommends the city form a nonprofit entity to bolster economic development. The proposal would be modeled at least in part after the Scarborough Economic Development Corporation, which is governed and subsidized jointly by the town of Scarborough and the private sector.

Realistically, Little said, establishing such an organization will require the city to allocate funds for a full-time staff person solely devoted to economic development. 

Other suggestions from Little include hiring a branding consultant, making a promotional video, and reestablishing the annual business awards program, during which the city awarded selected local businesses for their accomplishments. 

“South Portland, like every other city in southern Maine, faces a multitude of future challenges,” Little said in the report. “Our report documented a rising poverty rate, a stock of older commercial buildings, a growing divide between our well-off and less fortunate.”

Conversely, the report also noted unique strengths in the city, “including our economic and social diversity,” Little wrote. 

“If we are to meet our challenges and maintain the economic diversity and help our less fortunate, then leveraging economic development (maintaining and growing our strong tax base) is the only lens through which the city can move forward.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.