The myth of “pier poverty”
An op-ed by Mark Usinger
The beginning of August is possibly the beginning of the end of Portland’s working waterfront as we know it. Several meetings to discuss a rezoning that would permit more non-marine use are scheduled this month, culminating in a City Council meeting on Aug. 16.
Pier owners say they need the additional rent money non-marine tenants could provide in order to pay for the maintenance and repair of their wharves. But this “pier poverty,” as I call it, deserves a closer look.
Some of the same pier owners crying poverty have recently bought luxury cars, expensive boats and high-end real estate. Many live in greater Portland’s most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods. These are not poor people.
The pier owners were well aware of the condition of the wharves when they bought them, but seem to not have budgeted anything for dredging, repairs, or upkeep. Instead, they’re trying to have the public pay for the dredging and disposal of the dredge spoils. Some pier owners cry poverty but do little or no marketing to try to find marine tenants. Self-fulfilling prophesy, eh?
The Portland Planning Board was snookered by this bunch, mostly because the pier owners hired city planning staff to write the proposed changes. That gave the board the impression the rezoning came with the endorsement of city staff, so they had to approve it. Furthermore, the tenants of these pier owners are very reluctant to testify against the changes at public hearings, for fear they will lose their space if they speak out, as happened to me and my business.
It is a scary time. After we allowed the pier owners to rent the upper floors of their buildings to non-marine tenants, no one examined how much extra money that brought in, or what negative impacts that has had on marine users. We need an honest accounting of the real costs and benefits the proposed rezoning will have on the working waterfront.
Mark Usinger is president of A.L. Griffin Ship Chandlery. He lives in Portland.