April 24, 2018
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Portland mayor says he’ll focus on existing businesses over attracting new ones

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Less than two days into his historic four-year mayoral term, Michael Brennan told Portland business leaders he will be attentive to their needs, saying that helping them hire more workers is a better use of city resources than seeking out-of-town companies to relocate here.

Brennan, who was sworn in Monday as Portland’s first publicly elected mayor in 88 years, was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the Portland Community Chamber’s monthly Eggs & Issues Breakfast event.

The new mayor, who campaigned with a focus on education and was not one of the four candidates to receive either an endorsement or honorable mention by the Chamber, told organization members he plans to implement a “robust business visitor program,” in which Brennan or other city officials check in with individual business operators regularly to talk about growth opportunities or regulation concerns.

In his remarks, Brennan said he learned a lot about economic development strategies and trends at a new mayor’s conference held last week at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he attended talks by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, among others.

Brennan said municipal leaders at the conference from around the country agreed that “it is far less expensive to retain a job you have than attract a new job.”

He said tax breaks and other financial incentives often used in an effort to attract out-of-town companies to move are less important factors to those companies than things like public safety, health care availability, a quality education system for the children of business employees and executives, a thriving downtown and overall quality of life.

Brennan added that businesses prefer to stay where they are, and addressing the concerns and needs of companies already in the city — to help them grow and add jobs — will be a greater focus in the early days of his mayorship than widely campaigning to sell the city to companies elsewhere.

The new mayor also returned to his oft-stated goal of creating wide-ranging partnerships between private, public and nonprofit organizations to tackle transportation, education, affordable housing and renewable energy issues. He urged buy-in from the business leaders who represent one leg of the partnership tripod.

Brennan said he sees Portland’s struggling groundfishing industry as “vital to our future,” and said there’s room for “new and exciting ventures” in Casco Bay, such as aquaculture operations.

The new mayor briefly touched on the ongoing conflict between state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Maine State Housing Authority Executive Director Dale McCormick over Elm Terrace, a historic High Street building being converted into low-cost apartments at a per-unit construction price the treasurer has taken issue with.

Brennan said the dual goals of repurposing historic structures and adding affordable housing to the urban downtown make the project valuable, even though both aspects of the project make it more expensive to develop. He said projects like Elm Terrace will provide downtown employers with workers and downtown stores with shoppers without greatly adding to traffic, as the new residents will be within walking distance of jobs and goods.

He also reiterated his interest in reaching out to neighboring municipalities to develop a regional approach to mass transportation, noting that rival public bus systems are inefficient and that the public doesn’t have confidence in them because the schedules are unreliable.

“I don’t know of any other [regional] community in the country of right around 100,000 people that has two or more bus systems,” he said.

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