PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Michael Brennan has launched a slate of economic development initiatives, including efforts to streamline city permitting, bolster local funding programs for businesses and nonprofits, and keep tabs on the needs of employers in the community.
“Our hope is very soon we will have the best development process, the best permitting process and the most timely inspection process in the state of Maine,” Brennan said Wednesday during a press conference held in the Marginal Way offices of health care provider InterMed.
The initiatives are considered first steps in implementing the city’s Economic Development Vision and Plan, a document crafted by city officials, community leaders and business owners and passed by the City Council last fall.
Brennan was joined Wednesday by many of the stakeholders who helped work on the plan and who he enlisted to serve in a group charged with advising on its rollout.
Brennan said he chose InterMed to host the press conference because he visited the company last week as his first stop in his Business Visitation Program, which was the first initiative described Wednesday. The mayor said he hopes to visit at least one Portland business each week to compile regular feedback on the business climate in the city.
“The idea behind the plan is very simple: ‘How do we go out and talk to businesses of Portland and engage them in a way to talk about what they need to grow, what they need to prosper?’” Brennan said. “How do [we ensure] they stay here? How do we create more jobs?
“It’s a lot less expensive to grow our economy and keep the jobs we have here and work with local businesses to grow their businesses and to grow jobs than it is to spend a whole lot of time and effort and taxes and everything else trying to attract businesses from other parts of the country,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do that, but we think the core of growing our economy is to look to the businesses we currently have and make sure they have what they need to continue to be vital.”
The second initiative announced Wednesday involved the hiring of Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group, who Brennan said will be paired with economist Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service to launch a full-scale review of the city’s permitting and inspections processes.
The review, which will be paid for with $15,000 from City Manager Mark Rees’ contingency account in the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, aims to identify ways the city can more quickly permit business development and expansion — and soon — the mayor said.
“We’re not talking about having a report or a plan and then sitting down for the next 12 months to review this,” Brennan said. “What we’re talking about is, ‘How do we do a better job tomorrow, next week and next month?’ This is going to be clearly a work in progress where we’re going to make changes that we see necessary and fit immediately.”
City Councilor David Marshall, also speaking at Wednesday’s press conference, talked about the city’s sometimes cumbersome and time-consuming permitting processes.
“I look at our zoning book some days and think the only person who may understand it is the one person in City Hall whose job it is to review the zoning,” he said. “Our permitting process needs a lot of work.”
Other programs involve a proposed boost in funding for the city arts organization Creative Portland — which Brennan hopes to increase by $30,000 in fiscal year 2013 from $70,000 to $100,000 — as well as a slate of renewed grant and loan programs.
Using Community Development Block Grant money, Brennan highlighted the city’s new Business Assistance Program for Job Creation, which grants up to $20,000 to businesses for projects that will create new positions, and a second wave of funding for the city’s Facade Improvement Program, for property and business owners hoping to spruce up storefronts and streetscapes.
He also noted the recently established Portland Economic Development Plan Implementation Program grants, which offer as much as $75,000 to nonprofit and public organizations studying economic development strategies, business recruitment efforts and marketing plans for the city.
Rounding out the press conference Wednesday, Brennan touted the city’s Revolving Loan Program, which provides commercial loans of all sizes — from just a few thousand dollars to $250,000 — to businesses seeking to grow and hire.
According to a city announcement, Portland has 23 active loans to businesses worth a total of more than $1.38 million.