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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city’s “political climate poses a threat” to its ability to attract new businesses, according to an Economic Development Plan to be presented to the City Council next week.
The formal plan, the city’s first in nearly 20 years, says South Portland is “at risk of being viewed as a difficult city in which to start, grow or locate businesses.”
Drafted with help from Karl Seidman, a senior lecturer in economic development in the Urban Studies and Planning Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presentation of the plan on Feb. 17 will follow eight months of information gathering.
Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, members of the Economic Development Committee, and Rebecca Karp, president of Karp Strategies, collected information for the new plan through a resident survey, two community workshops, focus groups, and interviews.
The more than 100-page plan outlines key areas of growth the city should pursue, including increasing the number of “good-paying jobs and new entrepreneurs, improving the city’s image as a place to live, work and start a business,” adding to the general tax base; “reducing poverty” while “growing a skilled workforce for the future economy,” and moving toward a “greener,” mixed-use and more dense Mill Creek neighborhood.
South Portland is “at a crossroads,” Ross Little, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, said in a memo attached to the plan.
“For many years our community experienced growing prosperity because of geographic advantages and our reputation as a favorable place to live and conduct business,” Little said.
But the city has not been able to maintain a consistent pursuit of economic development, he said, citing poverty rates, minimal growth in the economic base and “controversies that have affected our business-friendly reputation” as contributing factors.
Unlike neighboring communities, Little said, South Portland has not been as aggressive in pursuing new business opportunities and developing strategies to grow its tax base.
Since 2000, South Portland’s population has increased by 7 percent, according to the plan; renter households have grown by 20 percent, and the number of residents living under the poverty line has doubled.
Households earning more than $100,000, meanwhile, have increased by nearly 170 percent.
For the city to pull it’s proportional weight in greater Portland, it is vital that it position itself as a competitive place to cultivate new and keep existing businesses, according to the plan.
Because South Portland’s businesses are the “backbone of its economy,” part of figuring out how convince business owners that the city is a welcoming place, the plan suggests, is getting rid of the perception that it isn’t.
A recurring weakness outlined in the plan is the perception the city is “less welcoming to new businesses and development, due to recent conflict over city policies and local impacts from development.”
The continuing debate surrounding a proposal to build a propane storage and distribution facility at Rigby Rail Yard, and criticism from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, have fueled that perception, Little said Tuesday.
While the committee will not take a direct stance on the issue, he acknowledged that it has “certainly hurt our image as a city that’s open for business.”
Another finding by from committee members is that South Portland lacks the manpower and capacity to power adequate economic development.
Reny, who is also the city’s part-time economic development director, on Tuesday said “the concensus is that the way we’re currently (positioned), we don’t really have the ability to do all of these things” necessary to sufficiently oversee economic development.
One of the solutions suggested by Seidman in the new plan is for the city to form an outside nonprofit organization – the South Portland Economic Development Corp. – as a partnership between the city and the private sector. It would be responsible for advancing economic development, similar to the Scarborough Economic Development Corp.
At the very least, Little said he hopes the new plan will get people talking.
“It comes back to bringing people together” and getting them to talk about what they want for the future of their city, he said.
The plan will be presented to the council at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, before the regularly scheduled meeting at 7 p.m.
The South Portland Economic Development Committee has worked with outside consultants for almost a year to draft the city’s first Economic Development Plan since 1997. The plan will go to the City Council Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 6 p.m.