Portland, Maine: The most hypocritical city in America

Portland has racked up an impressive number of accolades in recent years, topping lists compiled by magazines like Forbes, which named Portland the most “livable” city in America in 2009.

Earlier this month, a website called Card Hub named Portland one of America’s “most learned” cities. The site, which provides information comparing credit card companies, came to this conclusion by counting the number of residents between the ages of 18 and 24 who have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education. Portland tied Ithaca, N.Y., for third, with 17.3 percent.

Of course, this is probably the most meaningless ranking ever devised, since most of the people counted simply haven’t lived long enough to earn a four-year college degree. But that didn’t stop Mayor Mike Brennan from trumpeting the report, announcing that it “highlights the fact that Portland’s quality of life, cultural opportunities and professional atmosphere serve as a magnet attracting people and economic opportunity to the city.”

First off, Mr. Mayor, don’t put magnets and credit cards in the same press release. Second, the report says nothing about our “quality of life, cultural opportunities and professional atmosphere,” whatever a “professional atmosphere” is. (Do other cities have an “amateur atmosphere”?)

It’s fitting that a magazine obsessed with wealth and a website that encourages people to take on credit-card debt find Portland so appealing. From the Maine State Pier to Congress Square to the Portland Technology Park that opens this week on Rand Road, the city’s leaders have consistently proven themselves to be suckers for fat cats promising fast cash. They’ll sell public property and lavish our tax dollars on any 1-percenter who shows up promising to create a few jobs and lure more visitors to their own expensive hotels.

In 2006, a politically connected developer, Tom Walsh of Ocean Properties, showed up to pitch his plan to turn the Maine State Pier — one of the most valuable pieces of public property in New England —  into a playground for the rich (classy hotel, elite office space, seafood restaurant, etc.). City officials made it seem like the pier’s pilings were so rotted that it was about to fall into the harbor. They told us the city didn’t have the money to maintain this crucial piece of infrastructure and couldn’t find any marine-related businesses to lease space there and provide revenue to fix it.

We know how this fable ended. After another wealthy developer pitched a competing plan, the City Council had a hard time deciding which plutocrat should get our pier, eventually offered it to both, and both ultimately bailed out. Lo and behold, there are marine-related businesses eager to rent space there: two seafood processors, one of which recently announced plans to expand and invest roughly $2 million in the facility. And somehow, seven years later, the pier is still standing. (It’s the city’s commitment to the working waterfront that’s wobbly. Economic development director Greg Mitchell stated that the city reserves the right to buy out the processor’s lease “if there is a change in direction with the Maine State Pier.”)

In the case of Congress Square, toadies inside and outside City Hall told us a similar lie: There’s no public money to improve this public property, so it’s time to privatize. We found out how this tall tale ended on Monday, when many of the same sycophantic city councilors who tried to sell our pier voted to sell most of our square to an out-of-state private equity firm.

Pseudo-progressives like Mayor Brennan keep spewing blather about Portland’s economic success and creative citizenry, but his actions tell a very different story: Portland is too poor to spend a dime improving this park, and no one in this cultural mecca can come up with a single idea that would entice people to spend time at a public square in the heart of the Arts District.

Two days later, Mayor Two-Face is cutting a ribbon to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the Portland Technology Park. Our cash-strapped city government is borrowing $660,000, plus interest, to match an equal amount of public money from the feds in order to build a road and provide other free infrastructure for “life science businesses” (biotech firms and drug companies, mostly) that may or may not show up.

This is the kind of “park” the mayor supports — one built with more than $1.2 million worth of corporate welfare. And that’s just the first phase; Phase II promises to deliver more of the same.

With this ribbon-cutting ceremony, Portland also celebrates its ascension to the top of another list: The Most Hypocritical City in America.


Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.