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August 6, 2018
Mainebiz Women to Watch 2018

Women to Watch: Kristina Egan, Greater Portland Council of Governments

PHOTo / Tim Greenway
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, is an advocate both for Maine's commerce and its quality of place.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Kristina Egan, center, discussses transportation investment with the GPCOG leadership team. From left, Stephanie Carver, planning director; Zoe Miller, senior project manager; Sara Zografos, transportation director; and Chris Hall, director of member services and community relations.

Greater Portland Council of Governments

970 Baxter Blvd., Portland

Founded: 1969

Executive director: Greater Portland Council of Governments

Membership: 25 Cumberland County municipalities

Contact: 207-774-9892 / www.GPCOG.org

In her own words

What triggered your career path?: As a teen, I had an extraordinary opportunity to visit the world's rainforests and mangroves and see what was happening to their ecologies and their people. It was sobering. At the same time, I was inspired by what people were doing to restore the environment. I knew then I wanted to be part of that kind of community-led change.

Did you have a mentor or role model?: My parents were, and still are, my role models. My mom is a psychiatric nurse, and devoted her life to making other people's lives better. She instilled in me a dedication to service. My dad is an air pollution engineer who taught me that facts and science matter. He has influenced my approach to developing solutions to the challenges we face as a community.

What advice would you give your former self?: Never lose sight of who you are. Work on what you're passionate about. Be kind to yourself, and balance work with play and family.

Do you have a motivational song?: "Hammer and a Nail" by the Indigo Girls.

What's the last book you read?: "Zeitoun," by David Eggers. An eye-opener of a book about Hurricane Katrina, seen through one family's eyes. It's a must-read for anyone in law enforcement and, really, anyone interested in how our country's democracy can dysfunction in a disaster.

Kristina Egan's father was an air pollution engineer, and as a child growing up in Massachusetts, her experience with Maine was largely with the paper mills and the towns he'd visit as he helped mills comply with environmental requirements.

She also took a childhood trip to Monhegan Island. "I'd never been anywhere without electricity, anywhere so remote," Egan says as she sits in her office overlooking Portland's Back Cove.

She's lived in the state since 2010, and those two Maines — the commerce and the quality of place — are the foundation for her role as executive director at the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Egan understands the state's special qualities. "But I'm a data-driven person," says Egan, the organization's first female director.

GPCOG has 25 member municipalities in Cumberland County and provides planning services and other catalyst functions, everything from transportation issues to land use.

Its projects are diverse, covering a wide range from civic consultation to larger issues of regional economic sustainability.

For instance, a master plan for South Portland's West End neighborhood was named the Maine Planning Association Plan of the Year in June. Another project, the Portland Region Food Foundry, is a three-year program looking for ways to put 2.5 million pounds of food into the local economy.

Data-driven idealism

"I always wanted to make the world a better place," Egan says. "When I was 3, my mom had me holding a sign for [enactment of] the ERA. She instilled a sense of purpose and public service."

But there's also the data side of her — something she inherited from her scientist father. "My father instilled in me that it's very compatible, you can use data and science to make the world better."

Egan moved here because she married a Mainer — Alan Caron, an entrepreneur who is an independent candidate for governor. For six years, she commuted back to the Bay State for her job as director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a 58-organization coalition.

She also ran for, and won, a seat on the Freeport Town Council.

"It was part of my plan to be instantly integrated into Freeport," she says, laughing.

The bigger benefit, she says, is that she forged a deep understanding of the town's issues after knocking on hundreds of doors while she campaigned, including developing a deep respect for the effect of property taxes on town residents.

"It's important to keep people here who have been here all their lives," she says.

On a larger scale, it gave her perspective on how getting things done works on a local scale. "I learned a lot about balancing competing issues," she says.

She says it became clear that when politics are put aside, people care about the same things: economic safety, good transportation, preserving quality of place.

"If you can take the national politics out of the conversation, you can do a lot on the local level," she says.

It took Egan six years, commuting by train or bus to Boston, to find a good job fit in Maine.

"I wanted to live and work in Maine," she says. "I wanted to work in a place that had the potential to shape the future in Maine."

When she heard about the GPCOG opening, she jumped at it. She'd worked with councils of government in her previous positions, including as director of the South Coast Rail Project for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the first director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

"I knew the kind of role a COG could play in the region," she says. "What made it so exciting is it gave me that chance to help shape the future."

A bigger leadership role

Egan replaced Neal Allen as executive director at GPCOG in July 2016.

The region has wildly different needs, stretching from the urban areas of Portland west and north to the rural edges of Cumberland County, but Egan says the organization can still be effective.

"I saw a lot of potential for GPCOG to play a bigger leadership role," she says. "Local leadership needs to collaborate more to prosper."

One of her early moves was to form a five-year strategic plan for the organization.

She also assembled a staff that includes leaders in the fields the organization plays a role in.

For instance, Chris Hall, formerly the CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, joined GPCOG as director of member services and community relations last year; Sara Zografos recently joined as transportation director, coming from the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The organization this year also combined staffs with the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, an 18-community network.

A controversial move was raising member dues this year for the first time in 27 years. The cost of $1 per resident for a municipality will rise to $1.60 next year and $2 the following year.

Some member communities balked, but the organization still lists 25 of the county's 28 municipalities as members.

The increase was approved by GPCOG's general assembly in 2017 and Egan says it's necessary to bring the organization into the future. The dues generate 10% of the organization's $3 million budget.

There are nuts-and-bolts benefits the organization offers — such as a road salt collaboration that helps save towns and cities money — and the bigger advocacy role as well.

"We convene people, we're a catalyzer, and we're a conduit for funding," Egan says. "We focus on what's really important to members, and what's going to help the community."

Finding a regional voice

Another new goal of the agency is to "find our regional voice," and help shape policy that affects the region. GPCOG has formed a Regional Voice Committee that's charged with being the first line on forging policy priorities and finding ways to work with municipal officials, the organization's partners and residents of member towns.

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, says that Egan is the right person to unify the various entities in the region.

Egan's varied background, specifically in transportation, gives her "the knowledge and know-how to successfully execute the mission of GPCOG," Hentzal says.

"She has an impressive background, has done a lot in her professional career, and now we get to reap the benefits of that experience," Hentzel adds. "[Egan] is a true convener — someone who can bring the right people to the table, set the course and make things happen."

It's all about collaboration

Egan says the region faces economic and social issues that put it on "the leading edge of some really big problems."

Issues include Maine's aging population, workforce development, skills training, attracting and retaining young people, getting native Mainers to return, strengthening public transportation, smarter planning and preserving open space.

She says the state and region face the challenge of tackling those issues while keeping quality of place.

Egan loves the collaborative nature of government, the nonprofit sector and businesses here. She says that it's different from Massachusetts, in that different sectors are smaller and more connected.

"We can make things happen faster," she says.

Hentzel, who replaced Hall at the Portland chamber when he left last year for GPCOG, says that working with Egan she's "seen first-hand the vision and the change she is bringing to our region."

"Her energy and passion for her work are clear and are seen in her successes to date," she says. "It is without doubt that she is taking GPCOG, and subsequently the rest of the region, to the next level."

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