South Portland study finds more wealth, more poverty

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Data collected as part of an economic development study shows the city’s population is growing at both ends of the income spectrum.

Consultant Karl Seidman, a senior lecturer in the urban studies and planning department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told city councilors Monday night that the percentage of residents earning more than $100,000 a year has grown 168 percent since 2000, faster than both the county and state rates.

The city’s poverty rate has also grown more quickly, doubling from 1.5 percent to more than 3 percent since 2000.

Seidman told councilors he found the trend “a little bit concerning.”

Seidman was hired this year at a cost of $25,000 under former Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings to help the city research economic development, according to City Manager Jim Gailey.

Of the city’s more than 25,000 residents, the median household income is estimated to be about $53,000, nearly 10 percent higher than the state rate, Seidman said.

Research also shows that the number of renters has increased by 20 percent since 2000 among those 55-64 years old.

The purpose of the research, coupled with a survey by the Economic Development Committee, is to draft a new economic development plan for the city, which hasn’t happened since 1977, committee member Ross Little told councilors.

“We’ve been trying to ascertain what people want, and what conditions make South Portland a place to come and do business,” Little said.

Only 390 residents responded to the survey, and 88 percent were homeowners, which isn’t representative of Census data, Little said.

Those who responded largely agreed they want to expand the city’s tax base, improve downtown and the waterfront, and the sustainability of the economy, according to the study.

In response to the growing poverty rate, there was a desire among those who responded to the survey to create more of a “partnership with employers to employ low-income residents,” Seidman said.

Several demographics were largely under-represented, Seidman said, including “Millenials” – those born in the 1980s or ’90s, who make up more than half of the city’s working residents.

Millenials and the “younger generation seem to be missing in a lot of our survey,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “It feels like we understand that we’re having a growth in that segment in our community, yet I think we’re still struggling as a city to reach that segment.”

Reaching that demographic and engaging with them is “important for our future,” Smith said.

Seidman, the Economic Development Committee, and Josh Reny, the new assistant city manager and economic development director, will hold another meeting to gather public feedback at the South Portland Community Center at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

Reny said Tuesday that he expects the committee to present a formal draft for a new economic development plan to the council sometime before the holidays.

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.