Portland’s economic development director steps down after decade of rapid change

Portland’s economic development director steps down after decade of rapid change

When Greg Mitchell was named Portland’s economic development director 12 years ago, the eastern waterfront was marked by a series of undeveloped, weed-strewn lots, Thompson’s Point was an industrial wasteland and the western waterfront was a barren stretch leading to the Old Port. And the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 threatened to keep it that way.

Housing and Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell is stepping down from the position this week after 12 years of leading Portland’s economic development efforts. Contributed photo/City of Portland

Today, shiny new corporate offices, hotels and condominiums have sprung up on the eastern waterfront. Thompson’s Point is a destination for craft beer enthusiasts and live music lovers, as well as the new home of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. And the western waterfront is home to a robust international marine shipping operation, a new commercial shipyard and, soon, a VA clinic.

Mitchell doesn’t personally accept credit for all of that. But, he said, those developments, plus the city’s rising star as a tourist destination and foodie mecca, didn’t happen by accident and are the result of years of deliberate planning and policymaking by city staff and councilors.

“All of those things were vision and leadership coming out of government,” said Michell, 61, who grew up in Portland and now lives in Yarmouth. “I was fortunate to be a part of it. I got in on the ground floor.”

Mitchell is stepping down as economic development director to spend more time with his family. His last day is Monday.

The city is currently accepting applications through June 11 for his replacement, listing an annual salary range of $111,900 to $133,620. The job description includes “advocacy of business interests in city government,” plus other responsibilities. The director oversees a staff of 17 full-time employees, including the Office of Economic Opportunity, Creative Portland and the waterfront, among others. Last year, the office took on oversight of the city’s housing program.

What Mitchell counts as the city’s biggest successes, others have blamed for making the city unaffordable for working-class residents, artists and students. Critics routinely accuse City Hall of being in the pockets of local businesses and developers and have advocated for a more worker-friendly focus, including calling for the creation of a city Department of Labor.

Spokespeople for the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and the Southern Maine Workers Center declined to be interviewed for this story.

City Manager Jon Jennings did not respond to an interview request. But he said in a written statement released by a City Hall spokesperson that Mitchell has helped lead efforts to leverage tax-acquired and city-owned property to create affordable housing and the planned homeless services center. His duties also included working with businesses to foster economic inclusion and equity, while helping businesses expand, move or remain in the city.

“Because of Greg’s vast knowledge and skills, Portland is a much better place than when he started 12 years ago,” Jennings said. “He has led the effort to make strategic investments that have increased employment and educational opportunities in Portland. I will surely miss working with Greg on a day to day basis, but understand why he wants to take a step back at this time.”

Having dedicated economic development staff is not uncommon in Maine. Business advocacy is often one piece of the job description, as it is in Portland.

Maine’s larger communities, including Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston, Auburn, South Portland and Biddeford, employ economic development directors. And smaller, more rural communities rely on regional economic development councils.

“Most of our biggest cities have a role like this,” said Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association. “It’s not necessarily the only title that person holds.”

When Mitchell arrived, Portland had gone without an economic development director for several years. Starting work during a recession was challenging, but Mitchell said it gave him an opportunity to build relationships with the business community and focus on creating the city’s first Economic Development Plan. That plan was created in partnership with the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, Visit Portland, Portland Downtown and Creative Portland.

Quincy Hentzel, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, credited Mitchell with showing “true leadership during a period of tremendous growth.” She specifically noted the city’s use of tax increment financing, which is a method of diverting certain tax revenues to offset development costs for a specific project or to make investments in infrastructure or programs, including Creative Portland and the Office of Economic Opportunity, which seek to help connect new Mainers to the workforce.

“Economic development directors have a tricky job, with many constituencies to attend to, but the best ones, including Greg, are able to set a long-term vision for a city’s growth while executing on the day-to-day tactical management necessary to make those visions a reality,” she said. “We look forward to working with the new director to sustain Portland’s momentum over the coming years.”

Use of tax increment financing, known as TIFs, can be controversial, especially those that provide tax breaks to developers. Mitchell, who was tasked with presenting them to councilors for approval, said they are often misunderstood by critics. His job is to explain what they are and how they benefit the city, he said.

Since being hired in 2009, Mitchell has negotiated the sale of at least 16 city properties. He’s also negotiated eight tax increment financing agreements that have helped developers cover development costs and 10 TIFs supporting affordable housing. He also helped create and tweak other areawide TIFs, which allow the city to use property tax revenue to make community improvements.

While Portland routinely receives accolades as a tourist destination, Mitchell said the city’s strength lies in its economic diversity and its transportation connections, including the airport, interstate, international seaport and rail service. The city’s economy has strong financial underpinnings with medical, financial, professional and educational sectors, including the University of New England, University of Southern Maine and the new Roux Institute at Northeastern University, he said.

The last 12 years have not been filled with only success stories. A deal to sell Congress Square Park to a developer provoked significant backlash, culminating in a citywide referendum that ultimately undid the sale and added protections for other city parks and open spaces.

The city still struggles to build a convention center. And a bio-technology cluster never emerged at the Portland Technology Park on Rand Road as envisioned.

However, Mitchell said the biggest missed opportunity during his tenure was the failed effort to develop a city-owned parcel on Somerset Street in Bayside. An ambitious redevelopment plan to build a series of towers with housing and commercial uses was approved by the city, but then derailed and scaled back in response to a lawsuit by opponents. A scaled-down version also fell through and now the city is being sued by the Florida-based developer, Federated Cos.

“The private lawsuit basically killed the project,” Mitchell said. “There’s that old saying – that time kills all deals – and that was true with that project. That vision was ahead of its time. You can look back and see that now.”

Mitchell, who has held previous jobs in the public and private sectors, said he’s largely avoided politics in his role, though recent concerns about overdevelopment, gentrification and a lack of affordable housing have cast a bright light on his department and its activities.

Mitchell said it’s difficult to leave the “family atmosphere” cultivated at City Hall under Jennings, but he’s looking forward to stepping away from the spotlight, which shines particularly bright in Maine’s largest city.

“It’s difficult to step away from that level of collaboration, but it’s the right time for me and my family,” Mitchell said. “I need to put family first.”

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