Portland is educated and growing, but expensive, report says

Posted Oct. 20, 2011, at 8:15 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland Community Chamber has released its second annual Economic Scorecard marking areas where the city is lagging, tracking or surpassing other cities in Maine and across the nation.

The idea is to provide metrics to measure how the city stacks up in 32 areas, broadly covered by employment, income, education, housing, taxes and overall affordability.

It compares Portland to communities in Maine including Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Brunswick, Lewiston, Rockland, Scarborough, South Portland, Waterville and Westbrook. On a national scale, some of the comparison cities include New London, Conn., Nashua, N.H., Providence, R.I., Manchester, N.H., Yakima, Wash., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Corvallis, Ore.

There are areas where the city is leading, such as population growth. Portland grew 5.1 percent from 2009 to 2010; Maine communities grew by an average of 1.4 percent and the other cities actually declined by 3.7 percent.

Another area is city educational attainment. In Portland in 2009, 41.2 percent of the population age 25 or older had at least a bachelor’s degree. The average in other Maine communities was 26.9 percent and 35.2 percent in the other cities nationwide.

The growth of the overall Portland region’s private sector employment also was a bright spot. Between 2009 and 2010, the region’s private nonfarm employment decreased by only 0.2 percent. In the other regions nationwide, that dropped by 5.6 percent, and in Maine regions, it dropped 0.7 percent.

Related to that was the city’s unemployment rate, which was at a low in 2000 of 2.6 percent, hit a high of 6.6 percent in 2009 and dropped to 6.3 percent in 2010.

Over the same period, the national benchmark cities saw an average unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in 2000 and hit a high of 8.5 percent in 2010.

“The economy and educational base is strong,” said Christopher Hall, senior vice president for government relations at the Portland Regional Chamber, which includes the Community Chamber.

Portland lagged its peers in housing affordability. In 2009, the median monthly cost of homeownership was 27.3 percent of household income in Portland, compared with 25.5 percent in other Maine communities and 26.4 percent in other cities across the United States.

The city tax rate also was high, the report found. In 2009, the city’s full value property tax rate was 16.54 mills; in other Maine cities, the average was 15.65 mills. In Maine as a whole, the statewide average was 12.23 mills.

The city also had a high number of municipal employees per 1,000 residents. In fiscal year 2010, Portland had 17.7 full-time equivalent employees per capita, compared with an average of 12.4 in the comparison cities.

Hall said part of the reason for that was Portland was a service-center community that addressed the needs of people from the region — not just in the city.

Hall said the report card is meant to act as a road map of where business leaders, policymakers and community organizations need to focus to have the city prosper. Several years ago, in a report that was an early version of the report card, the Chamber made suggestions including having an elected mayor, revamping the city’s site laws and bringing the economic development officer position into the city manager’s office. All of those things have happened (city voters will elect their first mayor in November).

“We’ve got a track record of using this to make things happen,” said Hall.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said the most important aspect of the scorecard is its measurement over time.

“It provides a foundation to check in year after year after year. It gives us a trending basis,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said the city has just issued its economic development plan in collaboration with the Chamber and other groups. The plan is tied directly to the benchmarks in the scorecard, he said.

“It is a way to measure how we’re performing as a community, now directly related to the Portland economic development plan,” he said.

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