The Other Portland

Eugene has always looked to Portland for ideas and inspiration, but the blade cuts too often the wrong way. Eugene suffers from brain drain, as its best are drawn northward where opportunities abound for cutting-edge thinkers. Call it “bright flight.”

I think I’ve located the problem. That Portland’s ocean is on the wrong side. America is bookended with Portlands, but don’t call the smaller Portland the “other Portland.” Oregon’s Portland followed Maine’s.

Portland, Maine is a city with half Eugene’s population and double its pride. Forbes Magazine in 2009 rated it America’s Most Livable City. Note that nobody complained about the last word in that title. As a city, it’s comfortable in its own skin.

Comfort comes with age. Portland’s Euro-American history started with a land grant of 6,000 acres from King Charles I in 1623. Eugene’s transportation engineers could visit this smaller Portland for an ingenious traffic-calming strategy called cobblestone. Shopkeepers love it. These original rough-hewn roads seem to shake the money directly out of visitors’ pockets.

The abundance of quaint buildings and a charmingly hurly burly road design point to a city that managed its growth a long time ago. Portland, Maine stopped growing during the Great Depression. The advent of a national railroad network supplanted waterways as the most efficient mode for moving goods, so their ice-free harbor lost commerce.

Hope for Eugene is embedded in this Portland’s history. At the turn of the previous century, Portland realized too late they had backed the wrong (iron) horse. The city fathers were laying railroad track as fast as they could, but they chose narrow-gauge track for its versatility and economy. It wasn’t until well into the 1900s that narrow-gauge railroads became that era’s Betamax — a smarter solution that lost in the market.

America’s largest museum for narrow-gauge railroading is in Portland, so they didn’t come away completely empty.

They bet and they lost. And then they waited. Things eventually come back around. As water lost its utility as a transportation corridor, it gained romance as a respite from all that. Eugene’s waterways have a more angry history, unless you count warships and oil tankers, which you probably should.

We’ve been slower to embrace our water as a magnet for human activity. But the water will wait for us, and we’ll know where to find it when we’re ready.

Most of Portland burned to the ground when a city celebration on July 4, 1866 went awry. No wonder its alternative weekly newspaper is called The Phoenix. Fires dot Portland’s history how floods dot our own.

Portland has a vibrant downtown — more than one. Its original main street (the one with cobblestone) is lined with small shops. Portland boasts the highest per capita of independent businesses in America. Inc. Magazine included Portland in its 2006 list of “Hottest Cities for Entrepreneurs.” Portland’s Buy Local campaign has connected more than 300 independent businesses with the local pride of its residents.

The wharfs along the waterfront have risen from a gritty past to become another enterprising zone for restaurants, tour boats and condominiums. I stopped in at the Lobster Pound, but they wouldn’t allow me to adopt one. I guess I shouldn’t have worn the bib.

The arts district has become a third hub around downtown, built with tax increment financing, and anchored by one of the city’s five colleges’ downtown campus. Creative Portland Corporation has been formed to reinvest the tax increment gains to entice, support and celebrate artists living and making a living in Portland.

“I moved to Portland because of the school’s location,” admits Adriane Herman, who teaches printmaking at the Maine College of Art. “My students can step outside the school’s door and find an instant audience. That matters to me as a teacher.”

The city created an arts district to catalyze the school’s investment. The school opened its downtown doors in 1997. Art galleries followed. Then came an L.L. Bean outlet. Performance halls filled in some of the larger spaces, and now the area is alive again. Their First Friday gallery walk this month had 77 stops.

Portland, Maine has bet its next future on what urbanists call the creative economy. If it fails, they’ll build another museum.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs. Learn more about Portland, Maine’s creative economy initiatives at www.liveworkportland.com.