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Portland, Maine: coming of age at 350

Portland should know something about urban renewal.

Destroyed in an attack by French and Indians in 1692, bombarded by the British in 1775, gutted by a fire that claimed 1,500 buildings in 1866, the city has doggedly rebuilt each time.

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This southern Maine port, 106 miles northeast of Boston, has just spent the summer celebrating the 350th year since Englishmen George Cleeve and Richard Tucker founded the first settlement here. But along with honoring a rich historical heritage, the celebration has also given the 60,000-plus Portlanders a chance to display a more-recent accomplishment: the remaking of a dilapidated downtown and waterfront.

Blessed with a deep-water harbor, the closest to Europe of any in the United States, the city had been a hive of waterfront activity as recently as World War II, when it was home to a major US Navy facility. But the postwar period saw shipping migrate to Boston and Canadian ports while the fishing industry fell prey to foreign fleets. By the 1960s, ''the downtown wasn't a place you'd like to be,'' admits one city official. The image was that of a tired town, looking backward to a more glorious era.

No more. Responding to the threat posed by a mall built on the city's outskirts, city officials and businessmen in the 1970s took up the challenge.''It was a sink-or-swim situation,'' says Alan Fishman, a Portland real estate developer. ''Something had to be done.'' One of the first efforts was the Maineway project, a city-backed downtown street improvement that included brick sidewalks and improved streets, lighting, and bus stops.

At the same time, private entrepreneurs were fixing up the Old Port Exchange neighborhood, once the commercial heart of the city and more recently a run-down haven for artisans and others seeking low rents. Today, boutiques, restaurants, and specialty shops lure tourists and downtown workers. ''It's our own little Greenwich Village or Beacon Hill,'' says Mr. Fishman.

A flurry of other projects followed: $40 million in downtown redevelopment, a new public library, a regional civic center. And another group is under way, including an I. M. Pei-designed art museum due to open next March, and two waterfront projects: a new commercial Fish Pier and a ship-repair facility to be operated by Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine.

Redevelopment of the harbor, the scene of the famous battle between the Enterprise and the Boxer during the War of 1812, has lagged behind the downtown renewal. The two new projects, both heavily backed by public funds, are expected to anchor a carefully planned upgrading of the whole 5.5 miles of waterfront. The Fish Pier, providing a central facility for unloading, sales, and processing , is a response to an increase in local catches since the 200-mile fishing limit was imposed by the US in the late 1970s. Annual catches had dropped to 5 million to 10 million pounds earlier in that decade. Today, they have leaped to 20 million, with 30 million expected in the near future.

The key to the Bath Iron Works project is a 90,000-ton-capacity dry dock donated to the state by the US government. It is large enough to allow the longtime Maine shipbuilder to repair all US Navy ships except aircraft carriers and all commercial ships except supertankers. More than 1,000 new jobs will be generated. (Maine Common Cause is challenging the project in court because a $15 million state bond was approved to help fund the project. The lobby group argues that despite the new jobs created, public funds are being used for an essentially private endeavor.)

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A waterfront plan submitted to the City Council last spring by City Manager Stephen T. Honey calls for a ''working waterfront'' in which the traditional shipping and fishing industries will share some waterfront with ''mixed use'' development. In the same report, Mr. Honey warns of the ''gentrification'' of the area. ''We are not Boston; we are not Baltimore,'' the report says. ''We must forge policies and marshall our resources so that the Portland waterfront will be an employment center, filled with opportunities for those who choose to make their living from the sea.''

Of all the factors behind Portland's success, city officials and business people agree, close cooperation between their two sectors has been most critical. On some projects the city has taken the lead; in others it has lent support to private ventures. In addition, there is general praise for the aggressive search for federal money, including Urban Development Action Grants and aid from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration. ''The private sector has taken advantage of government money in the best sense - it has been seed money,'' says former Gov. Kenneth Curtis, who now practices law in Portland.

A diversified economy has helped, too. The city has become a regional financial center and the business capital of the state. As a result, unemployment has dropped from 11.7 percent in 1976 to less than 8 percent today.

Despite undeniably frigid winters, the local ambiance is itself a lure. ''There's been a reverse in life styles,'' argues real estate developer Fishman, ''people are moving back to the smaller cities and the country. They see them as a nicer place to live.''

City Manager Honey agrees. Until he took the Portland post in 1976, he had worked in Washington, D.C., for the National League of Cities. Now he lives on one of the many islands in scenic Casco Bay during the summer and commutes to work by ferry boat. Others enjoy city life year round. Waterfront administrator Donald E. Olsen, who doesn't own a car, has an apartment near the water and walks up Exchange Street each day to work at City Hall.

Former Governor Curtis, a longtime resident who has witnessed Portland's dramatic change, is reluctant to choose any of these factors. ''When I came here in 1955 to go to law school,'' he recalls, ''the city was pretty bad, hanging onto the past. It's hard to pinpoint what's turned it around. It's been a mix of things - motivation by special interests as well as an awareness of historic values.''

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