Portland City Manager Joe Gray
The exit interview
By Chris Busby
The Bollard: So, why are you leaving the city of Portland’s employ?
Joe Gray: It’s a simple two numbers: 66 and 41. I’m 66 years old and [it’s been] 41 years.
My wife’s been retired for 18 months. We took our 40th wedding anniversary and went to Greece. We stayed with some friends on the island of Rhodes. One day we were just kind of sitting there — they live literally on the ocean, the Aegean Sea … We were having a glass of wine and were looking at the water, and Marie said to me, ‘You should be thinking about it.’ It was that simple, just sitting there talking about it. That’s a true story … Nothing complicated to it. I’m in my mid-60s and it’s good to be able to do some other things.
What part of the job of city manager was the most fun?
Every hour someone came in here with an issue, and it was always different … it ran the whole gamut, from personnel issues to snow ban parking to big questions [regarding] economic development projects. It was the continual challenge of the issues that I found really enjoyable.
Aside from Dan Skolnik, what was the worst part of the job?
Well, I’m not going to make any comment [about Skolnik].
Certainly the worst part in the last three or four years has been the budget. That, to some extent, played a factor in my deciding [to retire]. We’ve had three very, very difficult budget years, and having to make decisions which obviously directly impacted a lot of people’s lives — because we ended up losing about 150 positions over the last three years — having to tell people right here in the manager’s office that, unfortunately, their position’s going to be eliminated, as well as knowing a lot of the other people who were losing their jobs, was probably the most difficult.
How do you expect the position of city manager to change when Portland has an elected mayor?
Well, first of all, you’ve got to remember that even under the change, the manager is still considered to be the CEO of the city, and so all the day-to-day operational decisions, personnel decisions, the budgetary decisions, still remain with the manager. To me, it would be no different than it’s been with me and whomever the mayor has been over the years.
Now, certainly the mayor has — and I think it’s quite vague — some role to play in the budget. And I think that’s going to play out over the next three or four years with whomever is mayor, in terms of the chemistry that’s going to have to exist between the mayor and the manager. Hopefully there’s going to be a good chemistry. They’re going to be able to work together, the egos aren’t going to get in the way, and whatever initiatives the mayor wants to achieve are going to be something that financially is feasible to achieve. And the manager, with whomever the mayor is, can somehow push them or move them forward.
But ultimately you have to remember that the manager’s going to still answer to nine city councilors. He or she is not just going to be answering to the mayor, but there is going to have to be a close working relationship between the mayor and the manager. But I see it no differently than I’ve tried to do over the years.
They talk about the mayor taking a leadership role in advocacy with the delegation in Washington or the delegation in Augusta. We’ve always done that. Whenever we go down to Washington to meet with the delegation to talk about issues that are important to Portland, the mayor has always gone to those meetings. It’s the same in Augusta. We would have the mayor come whenever we had meetings with the governor or with the legislative leadership.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I grew up in Providence and I still have relatives down there … A lot of these older northeastern cities have seen, particularly in the neighborhoods that are surrounding the downtown, a lot of disinvestment and a lot of abandonment. We have not experienced the kind of disinvestment and abandonment that so many other cities have, and I think that that’s certainly something I take a great deal of pride in.
We have put together over the years a lot of home-ownership programs to help people buy properties, housing rehabilitation programs. We’ve had aggressive code enforcement programs. We’ve used the Community Development Block Grant to do a lot of infrastructure improvements in the neighborhoods. So I take a lot of pride that we’ve been able to keep the neighborhoods, particularly the older neighborhoods, in the condition that they’re in, so that they remain attractive to people who want to live in those neighborhoods, with a whole broad range of incomes. That’s critically important … because you’ve got in the neighborhoods a cross section of people who shop downtown, eat downtown.
Besides the neighborhoods, another thing that I take pride in is the fact that we have been successful downtown. When I came here, we were the retail hub. There was no Maine Mall … I remember there was Porteous, there was Owen-Moore, there was Kennedy’s, there was Rines, there was Benoit’s department store.
All of that left in the ’70s and into the ’80s … We put in place the Downtown Portland Corporation, the Arts District planning that went on, and we’ve seen a very significant transition and successful transition in the downtown. Yes, it’s no longer the retail hub, but it has a very good cross section of retail, and I think the strength of it is the fact that Reny’s has decided that this is a good market to come into.
When I came here for my job interview in 1969, after the interview I had a couple of hours to hang around until I was flying out, so I remember asking them where to go to just walk around and they told me to go up Congress Street, pointed out different places. And they specifically told me not to go down Exchange Street, because it was unsafe. There was no retail as such. There was one restaurant, called the Mustache Cup, that was down there, but there was nothing to see. There was nothing to see on the waterfront.
In fact, one of the guys who was on the interview team, who was kind of ahead of his time, said to me after the interview, ‘You know, if they offer you the job, you should think about investing in those buildings down there, because they’re real cheap.’ And I remember asking him, ‘What do you mean by “cheap,”’ and he said, ‘You can pick up a building down there for about $10,000.’ I said, ‘I don’t have $10,000.’ I was just out of school.
That’s an indication of how different it was. The center of the city was Congress Street. The Old Port was the backside of the city, just as Bayside turned out to be the backside of the city over later years.
There was a successful transformation of the Old Port, led not by the city. The city really kind of followed the private investment that occurred in the Old Port. It was really the small entrepreneurs, The Paper Patch, the candle shop, Frank Akers … Then the city came in and did the pretty things: the brick sidewalks, the lights, the cobblestones, all those kind of amenities.
Do you have any disappointments or regrets? For example, do you regret what happened with Spring Street and Franklin Arterial during that time?
You know, it’s interesting. Somewhere in there [pointing to a tall stack of studies on a shelf] is the late 1950s plan from Victor Gruen Associates for downtown, which was very foretelling in terms of what happened … It called for the Spring Street Arterial, it called for Franklin Arterial, and it called for a Cumberland Avenue arterial. So the entire downtown would have had arterials and then State and High Street would have continued as a couplet.
Spring Street was partially done, but then the neighborhoods, particularly the Park [Street] row, rose up and didn’t want it extended. And it was at the time when, as I mentioned about the small businesses in the Old Port, they were just starting to become interested in the area, so consequently that stopped where it stopped.
Just as I was coming [to town], the decision had been made to go ahead with the Franklin Arterial, and so they were acquiring the property when I first came, and it was difficult in that a lot of people didn’t want to move. So the city was having to actually go in and use eminent domain to acquire property and move people out.
Was it the right decision? I think looking back on it in time, having a cross-peninsula roadway was important. Should it have been designed differently? I think that that’s the case. A lot of the work that’s being done now by the neighborhood groups on the hill to kind of redefine and make it more of a parkway, with potential land area for redevelopment, is a very interesting approach to looking at the arterial and I think makes sense. I don’t think the decision to do the arterial was wrong. I just think the design of it could have been done a little differently than it was done.
Obviously the Maine State Pier not going forward was a big disappointment. If we had to do that over I think we would have approached that in a different way. Rather than doing an RFP [request for proposals], if we’d done an RFQ [request for qualifications] and had looked at qualifications as opposed to design. It became too much of a design debate … Everybody got wrapped up in what it looked like, and what people should have really been looking at was the qualifications and the financial depth of the parties to carry out the project, and then worry about the [design].
You’ve got to take a long view on these things. Everybody expects that you’re going to change the face of the city in just a couple of years on a project. We’re not a New York, not a Boston, where you’ve got a much different economic market. You need to take a longer view, a 10-year view, at least. You look at downtown. When the retailers left in the 1980s, it’s taken us almost 20 years, when you think back on it, to see the city put a new face on the downtown, and a successful face.
Would you recommend working for the city of Portland to your friends and family members?
Oh sure. Yeah. This is a very livable city to live in.
This is a very professional organization, and the men and women who work here really work very hard. They’re very dedicated. That is not only at the department head level and the senior management level, but it filters right down.
I was out to the Barron Center a few weeks ago — you know, we do the Employee of the Month awards — and one of the nurses was in Barron Center 2, which is the Alzheimer’s unit. To see the care and attention that they give to the men and women who are there, the residents, is really outstanding.
And it goes all the way to the sanitation crews that pick up the trash. I was watching one of them down where I live just this past week, with all the snow banks, pulling the trash bags [out of the snow banks]. They could’ve gone by it, but they took the time, got out of the truck and were trying to pull all of the trash bags out. That to me is a simple thing, but it’s indicative of how dedicated and hardworking the people who work for the city are.