The new Portland requires new jobs … or else!

Will Portland acquire new higher-paying jobs to retain the city's middle class?

Will Portland acquire new higher-paying jobs to retain the city’s middle class?

The future of Portland will be determined not by the number of new housing units we create, but by the number of new jobs that pay family-supporting wages we create downtown.

You’d think that Portland had all the natural advantages to grow high-paying jobs downtown, namely:

  • We are already the economic engine for the state, with one quarter the population in our metropolitan area, one third the jobs, and one half the income of the entire state.
  • We are a center of education and research with the University of Southern Maine, UNE, Maine Med, Idexx, The Gulf of Maine Research Center.
  • We have half a dozen groups from the city’s Economic Development Department to the Chamber of Commerce to Creative Portland focused on creating jobs.
  • We are a nationally recognized place for good living.
  • Our average pay is among the lowest in New England, and
  • Young entrepreneurs, researchers and innovators are highly mobile and are focused on living, not in suburbs, but in attractive downtowns like ours.

So what’s the problem?

Well, in a recent 10-year span the city lost 2,000 jobs, most of them to our suburbs.

Why are we going backwards when we have so many reasons to go forward?

Stepping back, only one of two kinds of bangs leads to new, high-bucks jobs in the long term: the shotgun and the rifle.

The shotgun coordinates leadership among research and educational institutions, NGOs, entrepreneurs, developers, and the city with the single focus of creating new entrepreneurial jobs.

The primary example remains the ongoing success of the 50-year-old Research Triangle in North Carolina between NC State in Raleigh, Duke in Durham and UNC in Chapel Hill.

The rifle’s single bullet brings graduate level research downtown in a science, technology, engineering or math field and waits for the ripple effects.

Here the primary example is New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s offer in 2011 of $100 million to the best new STEM graduate school proposal for a city-donated 12 acres on Roosevelt Island. The start of a Cornell/Technion graduate school in 2012 is expected to generate more than $20 billion in new economic activity in the city within 20 years.

How are the jobs’ rifle or shotgun doing here in Portland?

Let’s just say, not so well.

How about the single-shot rifle approach. The city owns or has owned usable land downtown.

But in 2008 the city spurned the offer by UNE to establish a dental school downtown on the city-owned 3-1/2 acres where the city has now insisted that housing, a parking garage, and more retail stores should be built. The developer calls it Midtown.

The city still owns the DPW sites around Hanover Street, but the city has rejected Tom Blackwell’s idea for a collaborative design center with USM there in favor of, you guessed it, more housing.

No, the city fired its single techie bullet in the opposite, wrong direction: out by Westbrook, off Rand Road. The city has spent roughly $1.5 million to develop a “biotech business park” where no techies want to work—out by the Turnpike in a car-only, 1970s model business park. In three years only an insurance company from Lewiston-Auburn has chosen to locate on the dozen sites there. Hmmm.

So what about the shotgun model of global Portland leadership coordination.

Former Mayor Michael Brennan praised the Research Triangle model, but he’s gone, and local leadership remains fragmented and focused on other problems.

The eight or so economic development specialists in the city are spread around a half dozen public, NGO and private agencies. They are not all pulling for downtown Portland anyway. Think about the Regional Portland Chamber of Commerce; to it, suburban jobs are as good as city jobs.

The state government, which could make a huge difference, does so by hating Portland and depriving us of as many resources as possible.

Glen Cummings, new president at USM, would love to collaborate with the city, when he’s not coping with a split campus in Gorham, the university system’s mono-focus more than 100 miles away on Orono, and the residual problems of awful USM leaders over the past several years.

Maybe City Manager Jon Jennings can make a difference. He’s tech savvy, innovation oriented, entrepreneurial, smart, experienced at many levels of government, politics and business, and driven. He has a big vision and loves to reach out and deal with people.

His impact will depend on how much time he must direct to cleaning up the messes he has inherited, how long he stays with the city (his contract ends in two years), and how focused he is on jobs.

So no, despite Portland’s natural advantages, the forces for a hollowed out city are so strong, the focus on housing to the exclusion of almost everything else is so entrenched, and the long-term leadership needed for job creation may be so lacking, we are not optimistic about the future of the city’s middle class.

To us, the city’s future seems clear, very different than our past, devoid of the middle class that makes for true diversity, unchangeable by the average resident or advocacy group, and thus not so promising.

Note that the overarching point we want to make is that whether the need is for new housing or for new jobs, we the unwashed public will have little role in determining the results.

No, these are matters for city leadership. Which is why these will be our last comments on these matters as Keep Portland Livable.

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