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City taps consultants to improve development, permitting, inspections

Mayor Michael Brennan, echoing themes from his election campaign last year, promised immediate review and improvements to the city's regulatory process for business developments and vowed monthly visits to local businesses to see how they're faring, all part of a wide-ranging economic development campaign.5-17-mayor-econ-dev
"We will be doing at least one business visit per week. ... We're hoping to hit between 40 and 50 businesses between now and the end of the year," Brennan said Wednesday while standing in the office of InterMed, a "multi-specialty healthcare organization" located at 84 Marginal Way that was the city's first participant in the Business Visitation Program.
The program is an outreach effort the city uses to retain local businesses and support efforts to expand. The city's economic development team and members of the mayor's "implementation stakeholder group" conducted their second business visit Wednesday by stopping in at Apothecary by Design, also located in the Bayside neighborhood.
"The simple fact of the matter is it's a lot less expensive to grow our economy and keep jobs that are here ... 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," Brennan said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to do that, but we think that the core of growing our economy is to look at the businesses that we currently have and make sure that they have what they need to continue to be vital."
Economic development director Greg Mitchell agreed that attending to existing businesses is important, while the city tries to be strategic in its recruitment of out-of-state businesses. He called these out-of-state recruitment efforts "focused."
City staff plan to attend a bioscience convention in Boston next month, Mitchell said, noting that bioscience is a fertile area for recruitment. Greater Portland hosts the largest biotechnology cluster in Maine, with Portland as its hub, according to the city's "The State of Portland's Economy" report. In 2002, this industry contributed to the Maine economy with $432 million in annual sales and salaries averaging $58,000, the city reported.
The city's development, permitting and inspection process will undergo a prompt review by consultant Jared Clark of Government Consulting Group of Franklin, Mass., and Charles Colgan, chair/professor in the Community Planning & Development Program in Public Policy and Management, Muskie School of Public Service, at University of Southern Maine.
"What they will be doing is working with our new planning director and with our economic development director to review our development process, our permitting process and our inspection process," Brennan said. "We're not talking about having a report or a plan and that we're going to sit down for the next 12 months to review this. What we're talking about is how do we do a better job tomorrow, next week and next month?"
City manager Mark Rees promised that the consultants would not simply provide a "helicopter view" of the city's regulatory process but that they would dig into Portland's regulations and permitting system.
"We'll make it more user friendly with the whole purpose of promoting economic development," he said.
City Councilor David Marshall said, as a business owner, "I look at our zoning books some days and just say, 'The only person who may understand this is one person in City Hall whose specific job is to review zoning.' The permitting process needs a lot of work."
Touching on incentives to help businesses grow, Brennan also cited the launch of the Business Assistance Program for Job Creation, designed to help create jobs for low and moderate income Portland residents.
He also mentioned a second round of funding for the city's Fa├žade Improvement Program, which will begin this summer and offers grant funding and design assistance to property and business owners for the purpose of renovating commercial storefronts and replacing deteriorated or poor quality commercial signs and awnings. The program will continue to support the revitalization of Congress Street with an expansion of the boundaries for qualifying properties to as far east as Washington Avenue and as far west as Weymouth Street, the city reported. Businesses that have used these grants include Coffee by Design, Port City Music Hall and the Public Market House.
Brennan highlighted the city's ongoing Revolving Loan Program, which provides commercial loans to Portland businesses to facilitate economic growth and job creation, and the Portland Economic Development Plan Implementation Programs, designed to help local nonprofits and public entities.
City officials cited the goals of the city's Economic Development Vision and Plan, which was adopted by the City Council last fall, and listed accomplishments. Mitchell said there are $200 million worth of projects in the pipeline awaiting development approval, including high-profile developments such as The Forefront at Thompson's Point, an events center, hotel and sports arena development; and a renovation of the historic Eastland Park Hotel on High Street.
For more information and details about the city's economic development programs, visit the city's website at http://www.portlandmaine.gov/citymanagers/financialassistance.asp.

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