Smarting from a recession, Maine's largest city touts its small-town coziness and big-city cultural amenities in hopes of luring business

ASK a few residents of Portland, Maine, to describe their city, and a typical response might be this: ``It's a livable, old New England seaport city.''

With 65,000 people, Portland is the largest city in Maine, a rural state that has earned the nickname ``vacationland.'' Located 106 miles northeast of Boston, Portland is virtually a peninsula set atop a large hill overlooking several islands on Casco Bay. It's a financial and legal center for the state, but the port plays a major role in the oil, transportation, and fishing industries.

``Portland is still defined by the water,'' observes Bob Ganley, city manager of Portland, which has a council-manager form of government. Like many people here, Mr. Ganley views Portland as a small city with big-city benefits. ``Portland has all the dynamics of a major city, but you can drive in and out in 10 minutes,'' he says during an interview at City Hall. It has an art museum, a symphony orchestra, dance companies and theater groups, professional sports, a city-owned airport, virtually no pollution, and a very low crime rate, he continues. Traffic congestion is a 30-second wait at the light. It's clean, manageable, friendly, and holds a lot of history.

History has not been altogether kind to Portland, however. Surviving Revolutionary War battles and several devastating fires, Portland has had a lot of practice rebuilding. Indeed, its motto is Resurgam, meaning ``arise from the ashes.''

The 1990s are no exception. When the recession swept through the region in the late '80s, Portland was hit hard. Now, after reassessing and retreading, city officials say Portland is rolling toward recovery.

``This is a centered city with a long view,'' says Lou Ureneck, editor and vice president of the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. ``There was a bump in the road, and now we're on to better things.''

A look at the city's layout tells a lot. It is sliced into three sections: the waterfront; historic Old Port with cobblestone streets lined by unique shops and cafes mostly dependent on summer business; and the downtown, a mix of business and government buildings as well as some empty retail stores showing ``for lease'' signs in their windows.

Typical of many city centers in the United States, Portland's downtown suffered as the recession set in and customers flocked to malls in outlying areas. Retailers, once plentiful, moved to the mall or went belly-up. Some businesses, such as Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Maine, were tired of paying high taxes, so they relocated. Real-estate developers had overextended themselves. Middle-class families, some paying as much as 9.3 percent of their income in property taxes according to one study, fled to the suburbs. Since 1991, however, the city has taken pains to stabilize property taxes.

Greater Portland - the city and 13 surrounding communities - is prosperous by Maine standards. Although it has the lowest unemployment rate in the state - about 6 percent - it is difficult for professionals to find work here, notes Michael Donovan, director of the Greater Portland Economic Development Council. Attracting new business has become the city's first priority.

What kinds of businesses?

``There's a growing emphasis of how attractive this area can be for the science and technology industry - in that this is a quiet, thoughtful place,'' Mr. Donovan says. Similarly, this region is an attractive place for entrepreneurs because of the quality of life and the sheer space, he continues. ``Maine has always been known to draw independent thinkers.'' Several recycling-related companies, for example, started up here. Gateway Mastering, a mastering studio for music recording, recently relocated to the Portland area from New York City. ``We're trying to build jobs from within to attract people that can contribute to the state's tradition,'' Donovan says.

Within Portland's city limits, officials realize that in order to attract business, Portland must first be attractive to businesspeople. Downtown Portland is not just experiencing a face lift; it is getting a new identity. Congress Street, in particular, is becoming an anchor for an evolving arts district. Already home to City Hall, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House, the Maine Historical Society, and a fairly new public library, the street has become a magnet for arts-related organizations.

The greatest move in that direction has been the Maine College of Art's purchase of the old Porteous department store, which has been vacant for three years. (See related story, left.) Other anchors of the arts district include the newly restored State Theater which reopened last year and the Children's Museum, which also opened last year next to the Portland Museum of Art. The City Hall Auditorium, home to the Maine Symphony Orchestra, is also undergoing renovation.

``The emerging arts district is a sign that the city is moving ahead after the recession,'' notes Mr. Ureneck of the Portland Newspapers. ``The arts have always been very important here in Maine. I've heard it said that art has been Maine's greatest export. If you were to make a list of 10 or 15 of America's famous artists, you'll find that half of them have done work in Maine.''

Barbara Hager, executive director for Portland's Downtown District, a nonprofit group aiding in the revitalization, describes the wave of activity as a ``creative reuse of building.'' This is a trend many cities are experiencing, Ms. Hager says during an interview. Little by little things are taking shape, she says, noting that the Maine College of Art will serve as a primary catalyst. Already, lamp-post banners promoting the various arts groups line the streets downtown.

Other amenities being considered are an Amtrak train station (with service to Boston) and an aquarium. Sports fans and families have enjoyed hockey with the Portland Pirates and, most recently, baseball at newly built Hadlock Field with the Sea Dogs. (See related story, right.)

Such hints of growth and improvement have caused residents to be more optimistic. ``We've had our terrible period; it's been a very difficult down-looking time. Now, clearly that has changed,'' says Anne Pringle, Portland's former mayor. ``There's a community spirit that has reignited.''

In order for Portland to succeed in the coming years, many say it will need to become more competitive and aggressive in attracting business. Still, ``we have to be selective,'' Ms. Pringle cautions. Portland doesn't want to be a community that will take any business at any cost, she says. ``We are a quality community that has standards. We want to attract businesses that are owned and managed by people who value those standards.''

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