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November 15, 2011 | last updated December 2, 2011 6:01 pm
Portlandbiz

Westbrook shines for improvement in wages

Photo/Jan Holder
Photo/Jan Holder
Keith Luke, economic and community development director for the city of Westbrook

Out of all the cities in the Greater Portland region, Westbrook saw the biggest gain in weekly wages over the last five years, thanks to its business-friendly initiatives, according to Economic and Community Development Director Keith Luke.

Average weekly wages rose in many southern Maine communities over the last five years despite an overall economic slowdown in the state, according to figures released by the Maine Department of Labor.

Westbrook led the region with a 15.76% rise in average weekly wages, ranking first in Greater Portland and sixth in the state. Portland saw a 12.68% rise in average weekly wages, while South Portland and Scarborough experienced 10.44% and 7.8% growth, respectively.

Layoffs have contributed to a rising average weekly wage in Maine, according to Glenn Mills, director of economic research for the Center for Workforce Research and Information. "There have been a lot more layoffs in lower-paying, lower-skill jobs, so the average rises when that happens," says Mills, who credits the recession with causing what he calls a "structural shift in employment."

"What the recession did was kind of speed up the process that was already under way; a lot of productions jobs that would have went away a few years down the road went away much more quickly," says Mills.

Manufacturing jobs in the state have fallen by as much as 50% since the mid 1980s due in part to increases in industrial automation, according to Mills. "Modern machinery is part of that transition from blue-collar jobs to tech jobs -- it's technicians who do installation, maintenance and service," he says.

Mills says Greater Portland's educated work force has also contributed to the rise in average weekly wages. "Unemployment has gone up for everybody, but it's still relatively low for people with bachelor's degrees. Southern Maine has a higher concentration of industries that require post-secondary education [like] banking, health care and insurance," says Mills.

Luke credits the steady wage increase to the city's business-friendly infrastructure, overhauled in recent years to attract and retain big-name companies including Idexx Laboratories, Acadia Insurance and Disability RMS.

"Westbrook is a story in proactive development," says Luke. "Over the last decade we've used every economic development tool in the playbook to improve infrastructure," including federal Economic Development Administration grants for parking as well as tax increment financing and Community Development Block Grants to spur downtown development.

Offering a mix of downtown office and retail space, renovated mills and expanding business parks, Westbrook boasts the lowest commercial vacancy rate in Greater Portland according to Luke. "I think that speaks to [our] rational approach to planning," he says.

This kind of approach to economic growth is quickly becoming the norm in the mid-recession landscape, in Luke's opinion. "Such austerity measures are the new normal at the municipal, state and federal levels," says Luke, citing the Dana Warp Mill as an example. Currently at 80% capacity with roughly 12 businesses on each floor, the Dana Warp Mill has shed its heavy-industry roots and become a versatile space, housing everything from art studios and call centers to a martial arts school.
"We've got a city that could have sat on its hands and waited for more mill buildings to turn into condos, but we've done better than that," says Luke.

The city's commercial properties are benefiting from a budget-conscious sea change in the rental market that weighs cost over location. "A decade ago businesses thought they needed to be in boutique space to attract employees or investors. [Now] they are far more aware of site options and tax breaks," says Luke.

However, the city saw average employment at its businesses drop by a little more than 1% in 2010. The number of businesses in the city grew 2.18% over 2009. South Portland recorded 4.35% business growth with a 1.23% increase in employment, while Portland checked in at 3.94% business growth and 0.37% increase in employment. Scarborough saw a 0.45% decrease in its average employment, with the number of businesses growing 1%.

Unemployment in Greater Portland was 5.6% in August, below the statewide average of 6.7% and the national rate of 9.1%.

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