PORTLAND, Maine — A nonpartisan group of business owners has started raising money to defeat a local referendum that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2019.

Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the group mobilized partly in response to polling in late August showing popular support for Question 1.

“And most [referenda] stay ahead unless they are opposed,” Hall said after a news conference Wednesday morning outside of Becky’s Diner on Commercial Street.

The poll, by the Maine People’s Resource Center, showed 48.2 percent of likely voters supported the $15 minimum, which would occur in phases up to 2017 for employers with 500 or more employees and up to 2019 for smaller employers. About 39.7 percent were opposed with a possibly decisive 12.1 percent of voters undecided.

Both Question 1 and Portland’s local ordinance raising the local minimum wage to $10.10 in January then index the wage to price inflation every year.

The City Council decided to make the $15 minimum wage citizen initiative Question 1 on the November ballot after it drew 2,400 signatures. The question was drafted and circulated by members of the Portland Green Independent Committee, led by mayoral candidate Tom MacMillan.

Mayor Michael Brennan, who is running for re-election, and challenger Ethan Strimling have not publicly stated opposition or support for the $15 minimum wage question. Hall said Wednesday he would like to see both candidates state positions on the issue.

Small business owners speaking Wednesday said they support raising the state minimum wage and are not perturbed by the hourly wage increase to $10.10 to take effect for all but tipped workers next year, but $15 would put them too far out of step with neighboring communities.

“It would be a huge disadvantage for us,” said Scott Rousseau, the owner and operator of Play It Again Sports franchises in Portland and Biddeford.

Rousseau said he estimated the wage increase would raise wages a collective $111,000 at his Portland location, requiring another $340,000 in annual sales. Rousseau, like others speaking Wednesday, said he “can’t speak to the macroeconomics of this,” but focused on the impacts for his own business.

Becky Rand, owner of Becky’s Diner, echoed Rousseau’s statement, focusing as the other business owners did on how they expected the ordinance would affect their own businesses.

“I’m going to be forced to raise prices,” Rand said. “People can just go across the bridge and get a burger.”

The group pushing for the referendum, Portlanders for a Living Wage, launched their campaign Sept. 28 in front of the McDonald’s location on St. John Street.

Supporters of the wage increase argue that workers have been hampered by slow wage growth and that worries about broader economic harms are overstated, based on $15 minimum wages passed in cities such as Seattle.

Opponents Wednesday said that comparisons to other major cities are not useful for Portland.

Jim Wellehan, who participated in a national campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, joined those opponents Wednesday.

His business, shoe seller Lamey-Wellehan, does not have locations in Portland, but he said he feared new local business and existing business would look elsewhere if the city’s wage were twice that of surrounding towns.

“In this economy, it’s not viable,” Wellehan said. “In Seattle, they did it. But Microsoft is out there, Boeing is out there.”

Mako Bates, an organizer for that initiative and City Council candidate for the city’s Second District, said in a telephone interview that the comparison to other cities isn’t necessary.

“If we don’t want to compare to other cities we don’t have to,” Bates said. “We can see that the cost of living [in Portland] is going up.”

He said that the Yes on 1 campaign has a head start and a lead in the polls, but he’s “worried about the next month.”

“What they have that we don’t have is money,” Bates said. “We’ve expected to be outspent on this issue by a considerable margin.”

He said the campaign will stay focused on voter turnout on election day.

The group of business owners speaking Wednesday has supported candidates across the political spectrum, according to state campaign finance reports.

Rand supported Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Rowe in the 2010 primary, and Steve DiMillo supported Eliot Cutler in the 2014 gubernatorial election and Republican Maine Senate candidate Chris Tyll in 2012.

MacMillan said that based on polling by the Green Independent Party the issue of the higher minimum wage did not come along party lines but “is a class issue,” which he said “is sometimes a taboo subject in American politics.”

“National and local surveys and common sense says that workers overwhelmingly support it, so we’re going to see who’s stronger in this election,” MacMillan said.

Voters will cast a decision on the referendum Nov. 3.

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Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.