PORTLAND, Maine — Commonly cited as a rising star in anecdotal lists of top U.S. cities for everything from food to jobs distributed by nationwide publications, Portland was put to a more “concrete” test in a data study released this week by the organization Creative Portland.
The report found that while Maine’s largest city has some strengths and some weaknesses compared to a selection of the country’s similar urban hotspots, Portland has a fighting chance to compete with much larger bergs such as Boston and New York City for professionals, Jennifer Hutchins Creative Portland’s executive director, said Thursday.
The study matched Portland against the larger state of Maine and Cumberland County, as well as Boston, Portland, Ore., Burlington, Vt., Portsmouth, N.H., and Providence, R.I. The report dissected data on average salary information, commute times, numbers of restaurants, air quality and health care availability, among others.
“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness outside the state of the fact that we in this community are comparable in a lot of ways to a Boston or a Portland, Ore., but because of our size, we may be able to attract people who live in those places who would rather live in a smaller community,” Hutchins said. “If somebody is looking at taking a job in New York City or Boston or Portland, Maine, [we want to talk about] the things about our size that might be a competitive advantage to getting someone to come up here.”
Creative Portland is a nonprofit agency formed by the Portland City Council five years ago to grow the so-called creative economy in the city, and the organization has set a goal of adding 10,000 professionals and entrepreneurs to the city population over approximately the next decade.
According to the recently released study, Hutchins said, the group is on the right path. Portland’s stock of “creative professionals” — a wide-ranging term the organization considers to include everyone from CEOs and financial planners to lawyers, academics and artists — has grown by 10.9 percent from 2002 to 2011. In raw figures, the number of Portlanders holding those jobs has increased from 18,463 to 20,479 during that decade.
One such arrival to Portland was Hugh Morganbesser, chief technology officer of New York City-based Likeable Local, a company that offers social media services for small businesses. Morganbesser said he lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Boston for a total of more than 35 years before moving to Portland two years ago and ultimately convincing his company to place a small development team here.
He said life in the bigger cities brings “a lot of noise and headaches and traffic and extra expense.”
“They’re totally different environments in which to raise a family,” Morganbesser said. “It’s so much less expensive and your money can get you so much more here. It’s a lot slower and smaller than New York City. But it still feels like you’re in a city, there are a lot of creative people around and there’s a lot of activity.
“[But there are] shorter commutes,” he added. “Life is so much easier in Maine.”
The numbers released in the Creative Portland study bear that out, for the most part, Hutchins said. While Portland can’t compete with much larger cities in terms of salaries — the median hourly earnings in Maine’s largest city are $20.50, compared with the $27.69 Bostonians typically make per hour — it can offer some things big municipalities can’t.
Those commute times, for instance, average only 17.9 minutes in Portland, while in the Massachusetts capital they’re up around a half-hour — 28.3 minutes.
The coveted creative professional segment of the community — sought after in part because its statistically higher wages spur economic activity — is growing faster than the overall population of Portland, which has crept up by less than 3 percent during the study’s 2002-2011 time period.
However, Hutchins noted that the study was sobering in that it still showed Portland lagging behind the other cities in terms of creative professional jobs, with 25.3 of the city’s overall employment in those occupations compared to 29.6 percent in nearby Portsmouth, N.H.
Of the other cities studied, only Providence, R.I., had a lower such percentage at 24.2 percent.
“While we’re increasing the number of creative occupations, the overall percentage of creative occupations in our workforce is relatively low,” Hutchins said. “That says we have a good trend to work with, but we’ve got a long way to go to move ourselves up in that pack.
“We really did pick the cities [for analysis in the study] that are commonly held up as similar to Portland, and clearly it’s not based on size,” she continued. “There’s a wide range of sizes in the communities we looked at. It was really about cities that are often held up as … attractive to the creative workforce, cities identified as livable cities with high qualities of life.”
Portland has an approximate population of 66,000. The largest city studied was Boston, with nearly 619,000 people, and the smallest was Portsmouth, at just less than 21,000 residents.
Over the past four years, Portland has been lauded in superlative lists in nationwide publications such as Travel + Leisure and Men’s Health for myriad assets including family life, environmental friendliness, job availability, a burgeoning technology industry, coffee, beer, brunch and farmers markets.
Most recently, financial education website Credit Donkey issued a July ranking of “Best Small Cities for Food” that placed Portland second in the country, a spot lower than where the city finished on a similar list by Bon Appetit magazine in 2009.
But Hutchins said that while those accolades look good on marketing brochures, they’re mostly anecdotal, and don’t help Creative Portland “in a concrete way track our progress.”
“We anecdotally compare ourselves and make these assertions about what types of people are here, what they’re attracted by and how much they make, and it’s studies like these that put some concrete numbers next to those assertions,” she said.
Some concrete numbers worth noting are Portland’s 2.88 full-service restaurants per 1,000 people, which trumps Boston’s ratio of 2.35 per 1,000 and Providence’s 1.88, but is crushed by Portsmouth’s whopping 4.95 eateries per 1,000 people.
Portland also has 170.3 primary care physicians and 77.9 dentists per 100,000 residents. The study found Boston with many more per 100,000 — 252.8 physicians and 216.3 dentists — and other cities with many fewer. Portsmouth has only 79.4 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents, while Providence has only 48.8 dentists over the same population sample size.