PORTLAND, Maine — In the last State of the City speech of his four-year term, Mayor Michael Brennan announced plans to pursue citywide fiber-optic broadband Internet service, as well as encourage development along Forest Avenue.
The mayor also called for the city to designate publicly owned property for affordable housing and the implementation of so-called inclusionary zoning, which requires certain percentages of development projects to be used for housing for low- to moderate-income residents.
Brennan announced the launch of more summertime educational programming as well, saying the extra learning opportunities will help students maintain the academic progress they made in the spring through to the fall.
The annual State of the City address was created through the same slate of charter changes that in 2011 turned the mayor position from simply being a board chairman selected by city councilors to a position popularly elected at the polls.
Brennan bested a field of 15 candidates in 2011 to become the city’s first voter-elected mayor in 88 years. He has not publicly announced whether he will seek re-election in the fall.
Like U.S. presidents often do in their State of the Union addresses or governors in their State of the State speeches, Brennan has used his State of the City platforms over the years to highlight accomplishments and announce bold initiatives.
Wednesday night’s address was no different. The mayor rattled off a number of accolades the city has received over the past year — Portland was lauded by Business Insider, Time and many other national publications in 2014, he noted.
Brennan congratulated Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce for winning the Nellie Mae Foundation’s $100,000 Larry O’Toole Award and King Middle School teacher Karen MacDonald for being named Maine Teacher of the Year for 2014.
He also highlighted a $50,000 grant the city recently received to explore growing a health technology business cluster in Portland and an $80,000 grant for workforce development.
Like last year, when the mayor said he would spearhead a charge to raise the city’s minimum wage, Brennan offered some headline-grabbing proposals for the future Wednesday night.
He said he planned to convene a working group to pursue the establishment of citywide fiber-optic broadband Internet service, an effort he acknowledged would be logistically and financially expensive.
“By wiring the city it will ensure our economic and social future,” Brennan said. “We talk about building roads and building highways and building housing, but one of the key pieces of infrastructure for the city moving forward is high-speed Internet.”
The mayor also named initiatives to boost affordable housing in Portland, calling for inclusionary zoning in the city and the use of city-owned property for affordable housing development projects.
A city-owned parking lot on Munjoy Hill is being eyed by developers for eight units of affordable housing.
The Wednesday announcement most likely to spur physical changes to the city over time referred to what Brennan called “a new Forest Avenue.”
Like how the city’s Bayside neighborhood has become a hotbed of development activity in recent years, the mayor said the city next should set its sights on Forest Avenue, where Portland officials will look to preserve historically significant buildings along the busy throughway and find opportunities to locate new development projects.
“I believe the future of the city and future development is tied to Forest Avenue,” he said. “There are great economic opportunities and housing opportunities all the way from downtown Portland out to Morrill’s Corner.
“We do need to grow our city, but that growth needs to be strategic growth, it needs to be planned growth and it needs to be planned development,” Brennan continued.
On the subject of education, the mayor said the city has received $50,000 in grant money from the National League of Cities to work with Portland Public Schools, the Recreation Department and the 21st Century Program to expand summertime educational programs, using public parks, museums and other facilities to host experiential learning opportunities.
“For too many children, [summer is] a time they go without food, and whatever educational gains they’ve made fall by the wayside. We need to engage our children in the summer,” Brennan said. “I know if someone said to me at the age of 7, 8 or 9 years old that I was going to be going to school year-round, I would not have been very happy. But we’re not talking about year-round school to young people as a way to make them unhappy.”
Wednesday night wasn’t the first time the mayor used his State of the City speech to announce big ideas.
In his 2013 address, Brennan hinted at the creation of a local “education partnership,” which a month later was unveiled as Portland ConnectED, a collaborative bringing institutions including the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College alongside groups such as the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Greater Portland.
In 2014, the mayor announced plans to pursue a citywide minimum wage and reduce substance abuse in Portland, and soon thereafter launched study groups to tackle both issues. A proposal to increase the minimum wage in Portland to $9.50 by July 1 is being reviewed by a City Council committee.