Because of the work I do, I have the opportunity to meet with many Maine businesses, particularly small businesses, and ask them what is necessary for them to survive, thrive and grow. I also often ask them what stands in their way of achieving those things.
I ask these questions, because I care about the answers. I want to live here until I die, and I want my kids to grow up, live and work here. The only way we can keep young people in the state, provide jobs, grow our economy, and achieve real prosperity, is for Maine businesses to prosper.
The trouble, of course, is that much of the state is in denial about the economic reality they find themselves in, and are unwilling to take positive steps to promote growth and opportunity.
Nowhere is that denial worse than in the city of Portland.
Recently, I was talking to the owner of a small Maine business that operates a handful of small stores in southern Maine. Their story is pretty typical — they are a small outfit, run efficiently, and squeaking out a very modest profit.
This particular owner relayed a story to me whereby the business was looking to open up a new store. After doing a significant amount of market research and planning, it was decided that Portland, given its population density and the perceived demand in the area that was being unmet, was an ideal location.
“We had one meeting with the city,” the owner mused, “and it became clear it wasn’t worth it.”
The owner showed me their filing cabinet, complete with files for each new location they had opened in recent years. Inside the manilla folders was all of the paperwork representing what was necessary to open each location. Legal filings, regulatory compliance, bank loan information, correspondence, and much more.
The folders for all of the locations were perhaps an inch thick. “If we had gone ahead with the Portland location,” he began, “the folder would have been about six inches wide.”
The complaints were exasperating to listen to. The sheer number of authorities that would be required to be met with, the regulatory burden, the rules and requirements they would be subjected to, the abnormal capital expenditures the city would require them to make, the bureaucratic mess, the time delays and the number of attorneys that would be required to sort through it all.
Sadly, this is not the first such conversation I have had. It is a story about Portland that is repeated time after time. You hear these complaints from Republicans, independents, Democrats, and those business owners who couldn’t care less about politics.
And yet, the leaders in Portland seem completely oblivious to the perception of their city by the business community.
What is Portland currently debating?
Whether or not to institute rent control in the city, for one. This is an idea that is so bad that almost universally among economists of both the left, including Paul Krugman, and the right, it is agreed to be horrendously bad policy.
In addition to rent control, there is a never ending parade of other ideas that are punitive to growth and economic development.
Mayor Ethan Strimling thinks the city of Portland should abide by the restrictiveness of the Paris Climate Accord. Then there is tens of millions of dollars in new bond debt — and requisite property tax increases to fund them — to rebuild small community schools. And he wants, a doubling of so-called “inclusionary zoning” that requires developers to undercut their potential profits.
And of course, there is the newest brilliant idea, mandatory paid sick leave for all Portland workers.
None of the ideas currently being promoted by the mayor, or pursued by the city council, is truly geared toward making the city a welcoming environment for new businesses, and the economic growth they create.
Quite the opposite, really. Every idea they pursue makes it more costly, more burdensome, less profitable, and ultimately not worth the effort.
The city will not feel the immediate pain over one small business choosing to locate somewhere else. But in the aggregate, over time, that type of decision is being made more and more often, and so much potential for the city is lost.
And with that lost potential, for the city, is lost potential for people. Fewer businesses. Fewer owners creating wealth. Fewer workers carving out a living. Fewer jobs. Fewer taxes paid.
More people leaving, or never even coming in the first place. And more strenuous attempts to get just a little more blood out of that stone from those who remain.