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USM helps set course for Greater Portland to thrive

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A new plan to help Greater Portland thrive — improving aging infrastructure, coordinating regional organizations and re-focusing a workforce that is both aging and shrinking — has been completed by a team from USM's Muskie School of Public Service.

The 83-page report, titled "Greater Portland Tomorrow: Choices for Sustained Prosperity," followed a collaboration with a variety of local groups including the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Creative Portland, the Portland Society of Architecture and The Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Together, they examined the region and the way people live, work, commute and communicate.

"We started with a smaller report on Portland and its growth," said Joseph McDonnell, a professor of Policy, Planning and Management with the Muskie school.

Soon, the analysis grew.

"We wanted to look at the interconnection between the City of Portland and the greater region," said McDonnell, who co-authored the report with Richard Barringer, a research professor emeritus at the Muskie School, and Frank O'Hara of Planning Decisions Inc. They were assisted by several researchers and consultants including Michael LeVert and Catherine Reilly deLutio of 45 North Research.

They found that the region has extraordinary strengths and challenges.

One of the biggest issues is a workforce that is losing people at both ends: young people are departing and a large portion of the remaining workers are older baby boomers, McDonnell said.

"Maine is on a collision course with a workforce that is retiring, and it's only going to accelerate as the baby boom generation ages out," he said. "The demographics at the other end are going in the opposite direction."

The report proposes the creation of a workforce development center within the Muskie School.

"The Center would serve as a convener, bringing together employers and education/training organizations to identify needs and shortcomings, and to create alignment between educational outcomes and employer needs," reads the report. "Among its other activities, the center would conduct needed workforce research, program evaluation and assessment, and longitudinal surveys to track program graduates in the workforce."

The report also calls for a new commitment to local infrastructure. Investment is needed in public transportation and housing, particularly in high-density multi-family structures, McDonnell said.

Funding for some public improvements could come from a new local option tax, according to the report.

Downtown PortlandThe report also calls for the creation of a Center for Good Urban Design. It, too, would be part of the Muskie School.

"You want to have a growth program that does not destroy the beauty of the environment," McDonnell said.

Together, the centers could help focus change within the region in a way that addresses both the shrinking workforce and infrastructure challenges.

For McDonnell and his co-authors, the immediate work is to share the report with as many people as possible.

"It's a process now of getting it out there so that this can become part of the dialogue in the community," he said. "We hope this reaches gubernatorial candidates, legislators, city councilors and business people."

It's a chance to ignite discussion and learn.

To McDonnell, one surprise arose with the discovery of a pre-World War I transit map of Greater Portland. It include trolley lines and railroads from Falmouth to Old Orchard Beach. It was enough to serve people in the region more effectively than our current rail and bus systems.

"This would be billions of dollars right now," McDonnell said. "We gave this up."

"How could we recreate it?" asked McDonnell. "Our job now is to get people thinking and talking with each other.

"These issues affect everyone," he said.

Read related remarks by Richard Barringer to the Bangor Chamber of Commerce here.