This time of year, as we slog through the first few days of the new year and everyone recovers from their holiday vacations, it’s a good period to take inventory of the top news stories to follow in the coming 12 months.
For Portland, some of the big stories of 2015 will be carried over from 2014, and some we won’t know until they happen. The following represents 10 news stories I think we can count on being big ongoing stories for the year, sure to be joined by countless more. Read up to get primed for your year of news reading:
10. Live outdoor concerts explode
As my colleague, Emily Burnham, wrote about earlier this week, the Bangor-based promoter Waterfront Concerts is primed to increase its series of Maine State Pier summer shows from five in 2014 to at least eight in 2015. Last year, Waterfront Concerts brought some big names to the pier, including Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette, country star Dierks Bentley and rock band 3 Doors Down. The expansion of the Waterfront Concerts slate comes at the same time local organizers at The State Theatre are preparing to book a series of outdoor shows for a new 5,000-capacity venue as part of the $100-plus-million Thompson’s Point development. The City Council in October also voted to allow radio station owner and concert promoter Townsquare Media to host an 8,000-ticket concert on the city-owned Eastern Promenade, site of a still-talked-about 2012 festival showcase headlined by top folk rock band Mumford & Sons. While readers have offered some suggestions, musical acts have not been publicly named yet for most of the outdoor concerts slated to take place in what’s shaping up to be a big summer for live music in Maine’s largest city.
9. The building wave of momentum for Portland as a technology hub
In February or March, the group Growing Portland, alongside research partners at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, is scheduled to release a study on how Portland can grow a health informatics cluster here. That will represent the first tangible product resulting from $50,000 in grant money Growing Portland announced in October to study the opportunity such a cluster might represent. Southern Maine already has a good start establishing itself as a destination in the burgeoning industry, with iVantage Health Analytics and HealthInfoNet based in Portland, as well as Goold Health Systems located relatively nearby in Augusta and athenahealth Inc. in Belfast.
But while health information systems — technology connecting doctors and hospitals with the patient data and research necessary to best provide medical treatments — is a quietly growing boom industry, it’s not the only way Portland may make a name for itself in the technology world. Maine’s largest city was named by tech startup blogger John Egan to be one of America’s top 5 “under-the-radar tech hubs” in 2014, a distinction which followed a techie.com mention as one of the country’s 10 “most unexpected cities for high-tech innovation.” With a high quality of life and computers allowing people to work wherever they like, video game developers and mobile app makers are increasingly calling Portland home as well. USM has opened a full cyber security training laboratory. Could 2015 be the year the Forest City becomes the center of the next Silicon Valley?
8. Year Two of the Nova Star
2014 was the year ferry service to Nova Scotia was finally restored five years after the demise of the high-speed CAT ferry, which ended nearly four decades of ferry service connecting Portland with the Canadian province. The 528-foot cruise ship Nova Star has a capacity of 1,250 passengers and 300 cars, and features a casino, three restaurants, a theater, spa and art gallery. But the Nova Star’s first year in business was rocky. It started its travel season two weeks late and ended it three weeks early. The service garnered negative publicity for drawing down the $21 million in provincial loan money which was intended to last seven years, as well as slow ticket sales and a failing inspection grade by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nova Star officials said starting an operation as complicated as an international ferry service is difficult and they always knew they’d run into challenges early on, but pointed to a mid- to late-season ramp-up in ticket sales as a positive sign for the future. By late in the fall, a rival company — Canamerica Cruises — was starting to lobby for government support to replace the Nova Star as the Portland-to-Nova Scotia ferry service of choice.
7. More hiring at City Hall
I’ve written a lot in this space about the amount of heavy turnover in city government since 2011 — since then, the city has hired a new city manager, police chief, fire chief, school superintendent, planning director, deputy city manager, communications director, health and human services director and at least three attorneys, among other personnel moves. This coming year, that wave of new faces at Portland City Hall will continue, with the city due to hire a new finance director, human resources director and — yet again — city manager.
Previous City Manager Mark Rees was hired in 2011 and, after all but a few of the department head jobs under him changed hands over three years, he stepped down from the post in September, citing an interest in pursuing “other personal and professional opportunities.” The City Council in 2015 will almost assuredly settle on a permanent replacement for Rees (Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian is serving in the role on an interim basis in the meantime). Rees and Mayor Michael Brennan struggled at times to settle on where the line of responsibilities should exist between the city manager’s office and mayor’s office. This year at least one of those desks will feature a new personality — will it be a quiet, behind-the-scenes administrator like Rees or somebody with a more public face, like Brennan and some of Rees’ city manager predecessors?
6. To raise the minimum wage — or not
One of Brennan’s signature initiatives in 2014 was to seek a new minimum wage in the city, and he assembled a task force to study such a measure. Over several meetings and several months, that group informed the mayor’s proposition to increase the minimum wage in Portland to $9.50 per hour by July 1 of this year, followed by subsequent increases to $10.10 18 months later and $10.68 by Jan. 1, 2017. Brennan’s plan would include annual minimum wage increases tied to the Consumer Price Index from that point on. This effort comes against a backdrop of minimum wage debate at the federal level, where President Barack Obama and many other Democrats have advocated for a jump to $10.10 per hour. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, while the state minimum wage is $7.50. Portland is a heavily left-leaning city, and at first glance it seems the mayor has the necessary political and public support for a minimum wage increase locally.
But the devil will be in the details. City Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Nicholas Mavodones said he wanted to see an impact study of the mayor’s plan before his committee will recommend the package to the larger council. The Maine Franchise Owners Association — which represents owners of many fast food franchises, like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts — has cautioned that raising wages could increase payroll costs and, by extension, survival rates of those employers. The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce has warned mandating higher wages would make the Maine city an outlier compared to other similar cities and convince businesses to locate elsewhere. Local restaurant owners have said they’re largely in favor of higher minimum wages, as long as exemptions are left in place for employees who earn tips, like waiters and waitresses.
Still some others have countered that Brennan’s plan isn’t aggressive enough, joining a nationwide call for a $15-per-hour minimum wage and pointing out that the U.S. Department of Labor’s livable wage for a single adult in Portland is close to $13 per hour, and children drive that number up to $25. Portland may not be alone in this debate: Newly elected South Portland City Councilor Brad Fox is urging that neighboring city to explore increasing its minimum wage as well.
5. The battle with Gov. LePage over general assistance aid for undocumented immigrants
As expected, the legal battle between the LePage administration and a group of municipalities — prominently including Portland — over the distribution of general assistance aid to undocumented immigrants will continue on into 2015. To recap, LePage threatened to withhold all state GA reimbursements from municipalities who continue to distribute any of the money to undocumented immigrants.
Portland and a number of other cities have continued dispersing the aid to those recipients, arguing in part it’s their moral duty and that front-line city aid workers aren’t qualified to determine for sure who’s documented and who isn’t. Portland officials have expressed concern that while cutting off the GA payments to undocumented immigrants would place them in the good graces of Gov. Paul LePage, it could leave them vulnerable to a lawsuit by aggrieved immigrants at the federal level.
But on the flipside, the city may be stuck making spending cuts to offset between $3 million and $9 million — depending on whether the governor withholds just the GA reimbursements that go to the immigrants in question or all GA reimbursements — in newly absorbed aid payments. The city already implemented a hiring freeze and new spending restrictions to help offset state reimbursements it hasn’t received from the fall.
Last month, Portland and Westbrook requested that the Superior Court require the LePage administration to give the cities all their GA reimbursements while the question of whether the governor can legally withhold that money is still being decided in the legal system.
4. Fire safety in the city continues to get heavy scrutiny
With 25 fire deaths in 2014, it was the deadliest year for fires in more than two decades in Maine. In Portland, a Nov. 1 blaze at a two-unit residence at 20-24 Noyes St. claimed the lives of six people and, with the realization that the building had been the subject of multiple complaints over the years, motivated city officials to launch a full-scale review of their codes and fire inspections processes.
That review, being undertaken by a recently appointed task force led by Boston Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming, is ongoing. The public is still awaiting an official cause of that Noyes Street fire as well, with a state-of-the-art U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lab reportedly in the final stages of investigation now.
Meanwhile, the landlord of the Noyes Street residence is facing legal action by victims’ family members and renewed complaints by tenants of his other buildings, both of whom say he leaves his properties in unacceptable condition.
In 2015, we should learn what started the fire at 20-24 Noyes St., what the city plans to do differently with fire inspections in the future, and whether the court believes the landlord should bear any responsibility for the deadly blaze.
3. Major development projects will redefine Portland for years to come
Two development projects considered among the most transformative the city of Portland has seen in decades should begin to take greater shape in 2015 after years of lengthy debate and glacial movement through the city’s permitting processes.
The $100-plus-million mixed-use project underway on Portland’s Thompson’s Point peninsula in the Fore River is located on one of the highest visibility spots in southern Maine, and is poised to be the first part of Portland visitors from the south see coming up Interstate 295 for decades to come. That campus-style project is due to include a sports arena to host the local Maine Red Claws professional basketball team, office buildings, the country’s first college for circus arts and the aforementioned outdoor concert venue.
According to a report by economist Chuck Lawton of the research group Planning Decisions, the project when completed will generate $31.3 million in new annual sales for Maine businesses, 455 permanent jobs and $11 million in yearly wages.
Over in the Bayside neighborhood, developers behind the Midtown project hope 2015 is the year they finally get shovels in the ground on what would be an $85 million project featuring four buildings between 72 and 92 feet in height, as well as a parking garage with 800 spaces.
A previous version of Midtown, which would have more dramatically altered the Portland skyline with a quartet of 165-foot towers, received city approvals, but was challenged in court by a group of vocal opponents and was stalled in the legal system for months.
Developers with The Federated Cos. scaled back the project in order to satisfy their critics and get it dislodged from the court, and brought the new version to the Planning Board in November.
While Thompson’s Point and Midtown are by some measure the biggest projects on the books so far, Portland has been experiencing a development boom in recent years, and a number of other projects could contribute to a busy 2015 construction season as well.
Could this be the year the new owners of the historic 10-acre Portland Co. complex on Fore Street unveil redevelopment plans for the site? They began investigating rezoning possibilities in the fall of 2014. Stay tuned.
2. The light — or darkness — at the end of the tunnel for University of Southern Maine
Former Central Maine Power Co. CEO and interim University of Southern Maine President David Flanagan spent the fall semester proposing and defending deep cuts that he says will balance the budget for the next fiscal year — and hopefully, the fiscal years after. Among the cuts were the elimination of five USM programs and 51 faculty positions, as well as numerous staff-level layoffs.
These come in response to what Flanagan, who took over for outgoing President Theo Kalikow in the summer, called a $16 million budget shortfall due to hit the school in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
But many faculty members and students loudly protested those cuts, arguing they’ll only cripple the university moving forward and that the administration has exaggerated the extent of the financial crisis.
The school’s ongoing efforts to re-establish itself as “Maine’s metropolitan university” — appealing to urban students with hands-on research and projects embedded with Portland businesses and nonprofits — are being promoted by supporters as USM’s best hope for long-term success.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has begun to lobby state lawmakers to increase funding for the university in an effort to prevent any additional cuts and allow the school to get its metropolitan university transformation more underway and re-stabilize.
In 2015, Flanagan will finish his budget balancing efforts and finish his one year in charge of USM, handing the reins over to a successor who has yet to be chosen and who can start off with a clean slate.
Whether that permanent president is handed a university primed for future success or a sinking ship depends on who you ask.
1. Portland gets its second public vote for mayor
Four years ago, Portland voters had their first popular election for mayor in 88 years following a slate of city charter changes approved the previous year. And it was quite a campaign, with 15 candidates getting on the ballot and lively debates hosted by several local organizations.
Former state lawmaker and U.S. House candidate Michael Brennan beat fellow former state Sen. Ethan Strimling, sitting council chairman Mavodones and a dozen other candidates — many of whom were surprisingly formidable, considering how big the crowd was — to claim the job.
The elected mayor position was largely uncharted territory for Portland, which set aside nearly $70,000 in salary for the newly paid post, and Brennan set the tempo for future mayors to come with ambitious goals. In addition to the aforementioned minimum wage, general assistance and technology cluster efforts highlighted above, Brennan has been a vocal advocate for increasing local food consumption in Portland, streamlining city permitting and establishing a research/education collaborative in the area.
Brennan has yet to say publicly whether or not he’ll run for re-election — I’ve asked — and while many of his top rivals in the 2011 race remain politically active, the field hasn’t even begun to take shape for the 2015 campaign.
How Portlanders vote this time around may give us a sign what they think of how Brennan has used the new position in his time there.
Another interesting sidebar will be the use of ranked choice voting in Maine’s largest city, which allows voters to order their choices in terms of favorites, so their second or third choice can get their vote if their other top picks are eliminated from the running. Portland pioneered ranked choice voting in Maine in the 2011 mayoral election, and with two-time gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler among those spearheading an effort to implement the process statewide, the city race may be under great scrutiny again as a second-go-round test case.