SOUTH PORTLAND — Tom Blake became an Uber driver last summer, and has been learning a lot about millennials as he drives around the city.
It began as a side venture to earn some extra cash so Blake, 64, could build an outdoor staircase to connect his elevated Ferry Village back yard to Davidson’s Beach.
“But I never realized it would be as educational and informative as it is,” Blake said Monday morning during an interview at his home, which offers an expansive view of Portland, from Peninsula to West End.
Blake, who transports eight or 10 people on any given day, said he uses the opportunity to glean the perspective of his younger riders, if they’re willing to talk. Young people need to be asked directly what they think, he said, and that’s what he’s doing.
The conversations are partially what has inspired Blake, a three-term city councilor who began a third, one-year term as mayor this month, to assemble an ad hoc committee to attract more involvement from the city’s 18- to 30-year-olds.
“We are planning our future without the people we are planning it for: the youth,” Blake said in his Dec. 7 inaugural address.
During a recent Uber drive, his passenger was a 22-year-old medical student who is new to South Portland. The ride ended with Blake successfully recruiting her to be one of the eight members of the committee.
Blake is also planning to recruit students from Southern Maine Community College, Kaplan University, and the South Portland School Department.
The committee will be tasked with bringing recommendations to the council. At the very least, his goal is to get more young people on city boards and committees and to galvanize the younger population to participate in council deliberations.
“It’s extremely noticeable to me that our youth are not involved in these processes,” he said at his inauguration.
Blake is retired from the South Portland Fire Department and Southern Maine Community College, where he taught emergency medical training. He now teaches a Maine history course at SMCC, and works several part-time jobs, including officiating middle school and high school track and field meets.
Blake and his wife Dee Dee grew up just down the street from each another in the Pleasantdale neighborhood, but only met after he graduated from South Portland High School in 1970, and was in college. They married and bought the circa-1875 house in Ferry Village 45 years ago, and raised four children. Blake, who describes himself as a family man, introduced each member of his family who was in the audience, including several of his 14 grandchildren, at his inauguration.
In addition to attracting involvement by a younger generation, Blake has a handful of issues he wants to see addressed.
“We need to work on affordability and homelessness, regulations on pesticides, plastics and polystyrenes. We need to enhance fiber optics and business opportunities for our communities,” Blake said.
Also included on the list of potential initiatives is raising the minimum wage.
A failed November referendum in Portland that attempted to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2019 would have been “too much, too fast,” he said, but $12 might be the right threshold.
When it comes to City Hall’s relationship with the business and commercial community, Blake said he wants to focus first on bolstering South Portland’s strengths by creating a healthy community. The rest, he said, will follow.
“I don’t believe we should promote business (first); we should create a healthy community,” he said. Create parks, pedestrian-friendly roadways, accessible public transportation, and a strong public education system, “and they will come,” Blake said.
Consolidating the municipal and school departments in one building may not be feasible under Blake’s term as mayor. But it is something he hopes the city will work toward in the coming years, on the coattails of an anticipated consolidation of Memorial and Mahoney middle schools.
The best thing the two entities could do is work together under the same roof, he said. “Mahoney could very well become the next City Hall,” he said.
Coupled with his plans for improvement, Blake also has his share of criticisms.
City councilors, he said, “need to be more responsive.”
During his inaugural speech, Blake also cited residents’ ambivalent relationship with “heavy industry” as an “ongoing struggle and handicap for our community.”
“Over 100 years ago our forefathers decided the best future for South Portland was based on retail, commercial and an industrial path,” he said.
And while that may have been the right vision at the time, Blake said, “for 20 years we’ve seen one issue after another disrupt our community.”
“From the Irving Oil conflict of the ’90s, to the tar sands issue two years ago, to the current propane issue, these conflicts are extremely unhealthy for our community. They’re expensive, they’re time consuming … and they pit citizens against businesses and citizens against citizens,” Blake said.
“When the public speaks up and wants us to act” and local government doesn’t respond, people often take it into their own hands, such as the latest proposal to enact a moratorium on an a pending liquefied petroleum gas storage application, he said.
“That’s not best government,” Blake said Monday, and it has come to this point because “we didn’t take the lead.”
The city and council should have responded sooner and more directly to residents’ concerns, Blake said. In the future, “I’m hoping we can be preventive and a little more on top of things,” he said.
In his inaugural address, when referencing the ongoing friction between residents and big industry in South Portland, Blake said he doesn’t know what the answer is, “but as councilors we’ve got to do better. Just like terrorism is a cancer in America, this problem is a cancer in our community.”
South Portland Mayor Tom Blake on the porch of his home in Ferry Village, where he lives with his wife of 45 years, Dee Dee. Blake is serving a one-year term as mayor in the last of nine consecutive years on the City Council.