Will Maine’s largest development crush its most legendary musical hive?
By Chris Busby
It appears to be yet another case of capitalism against culture — wealthy developers kicking poor artists to the curb to make way for what the moneyed elites consider progress. But appearances can be deceiving, and in this story, very little is as it seems.
The development is The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, a $105 million complex planned for the mini-peninsula behind the Amtrak and bus station off I-295 in Portland. As envisioned, The Forefront will have as many as six office buildings, two restaurants, a 125-room hotel, an 80,000-square-foot event center (where the NBA D-League Maine Red Claws would play), about 1,500 parking spaces, and a sports medicine facility. It’s said to be the largest privately financed development in Maine since the Maine Mall opened four decades ago, though as we reported in the summer of 2011 (see “That’s Our Dump!”), it would not be possible without a property tax break worth over $30 million, so the public has considerable skin in the game.
The Forefront would also not be possible without the demolition of Portland’s most legendary music rehearsal space, the whitewashed concrete-block structure on Thompson’s Point formerly known as Prime Artist Rehearsal Studios. Many of the best rock, metal and funk bands to have emerged on the local scene in the past 15 years developed their sound at Prime, including Rustic Overtones, Covered in Bees and Sly-Chi.
The loss of these 15 studio spaces would rip a sizeable hole in the music scene’s sails. “After Prime goes down, some bands won’t have anywhere to go,” said Bruce Merson, who plays drums for Nuclear Boots. “If it wasn’t for Prime, I don’t know what would be going on.”
There is only one other commercial rehearsal facility in town with a comparable number of studios, a building on Warren Avenue with about a dozen spaces, but it’s fully rented and the waiting list is long — “two years, maybe even three years” to get in, Merson said. The Warren Avenue studios are a lot safer and cleaner than Prime’s old rooms were, but also more expensive.
The Forefront’s development team pressed city officials to fast-track their project’s approval, saying potential tenants and investors might get cold feet if the process dragged on even an extra couple weeks. The City Council complied. That was almost two years ago. Meanwhile, shovel has yet to hit dirt. Thompson’s Point remains an industrial wasteland.
The one structure on the point that’s been significantly improved is the former Prime Artist building. It’s been renamed Grime Studios, but is actually a lot less grimy than it once was. Almost all the trash is gone. Security’s been improved. The toilet flushes again.
The space was rescued last year by a rag-tag group of young musicians and artists led by Justin Curtsinger, the building’s new manager, and Gregory Souza, with the help of artists Max Alex and Kevin Gallagher. Curtsinger and Souza are both Maine College of Art (MECA) drop-outs who rented space at Prime. Both play extremely heavy metal and make unconventional art — Curtsinger, who’s 31, self-publishes his writings and drawings; Souza, 29, makes posters and jackets customized with paint and studs, among other endeavors. They couldn’t stand to see Prime fall to ruin. And they can’t stand the idea of The Forefront.
In an op-ed published in our September 2011 issue, Souza made an impassioned argument for the importance of places like Prime. “Serious work most often comes from the fertile ground of ruined, marginal spaces, where artists are free from any pressure to be productive or have anything look appealing or be safe for neighbors,” he wrote. “What’s not valuable to me is another cookie-cutter parking lot with rotting, soulless buildings sucking up power and being used only half the day, forcing property into one, and only one, possible form: development for the profit of already rich people.”
Remarkably, one of the people who agree with Souza — his first point, anyway — is a principal member of the Forefront development team: Chris Thompson. An art historian and critical theorist who also develops hotels, Thompson used to teach at MECA, and Souza was one of his students.
“He’s a really exceptional guy and he’s really committed to what he’s doing,” Thompson said of Souza during a recent interview. “I really admire that.”
Wait, isn’t this the same punk who essentially told you and your business partners to go fuck yourselves? Surely the admiration isn’t mutual.
“He’s a unique and special person,” Souza said of Thompson. “To be perfectly honest, he encouraged me to drop out [of MECA] because he could see that it was not the school for me and it didn’t fit me and I was essentially throwing my money away, selling a piece of my future … He made a strong impression on me.”
Although it has encountered numerous obstacles over the past two years — including a four-month hang-up with the state and a railway company over a permit — Thompson said the Forefront project is back on track. He expects construction will begin later this spring.
So Grime Studios’ days are numbered, and that number isn’t high. Paradoxically, the person now in the best position to keep the spirit of the space alive is also one of the people working to demolish it: Thompson. The fact he’s a “unique and special person,” as Souza said, “is the thing upon which many things hinge.”
Prime Artist Rehearsal Studios opened in 1995. Proprietor Jeff Davis started the business in part because his own band, Big Chief, was having a hard time finding a place to rehearse.
Prime thrived during its first seven or eight years. All the rooms were rented, some by two or more bands pitching in to share a space, and the wait list was as long as the one these days for studios on Warren Avenue. Davis and his employee, Sean Emmons, were on the premises during regular business hours and often beyond. If you were practicing at Prime and needed a guitar string or picks or a new drum head or a cable, you could buy one there. There was a drum room with a full kit that you could rent while you learned how to play.
With so many bands in close proximity, musicians had ample opportunity to get to know each other and compare notes on instruments, sound and recording equipment, venues, pot dealers, whatever. Prime fostered new collaborations and created a sense of community. It’s probably no coincidence that this was also the period during which Portland’s indie-rock scene experienced a renaissance. Phantom Buffalo, Satellite Lot and Cult Maze were among the groups that practiced there. While it’s impossible to quantify the effect Prime had on the quality of local music, it’s reasonable to say many of our best bands would not be nearly as good, assuming they existed at all, if they had not had this place to work on their material.
Emmons took over the business from Davis about 10 years ago, but Prime declined on his watch, and “when it went to hell, it went straight to hell,” said Tristan Gallagher, Covered in Bees’ drummer, who developed his chops in the drum room at Prime.
“When I took over, there was a soda machine, a vending machine, a Pac-Man machine, and within six months, they were all trashed,” Emmons told the Portland Phoenix last summer. Garbage piled up and the toilet stopped working, but that didn’t stop people from using it. Rats as big as cats spooked even the death-metal guys.
Prime offered 24-hour access, which was convenient when inspiration struck, but also convenient for thieves. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment was stolen from the practice rooms over the years. “You’d sometimes walk in and there’d be somebody with bolt-cutters on a door,” said Souza, who started practicing at Prime around the time Davis left. “They’d see you and just walk back outside, because the door had been left open for who-knows-how-many hours.”
A sense of lawlessness set in. Souza recalled the time back in 2002 when someone abandoned a van on the south side of the building. He arrived for practice to find fire trucks all over the property. “Somebody had dumped gasoline in it and then pushed it over into the estuary — and it had fallen down and exploded — just for the hell of it,” he said. Five years later, a band hanging out at Prime launched a box-full of professional-grade fireworks from the point, dangerously close to the flight path in and out of the jetport. It was the Fifth of July, which is why Souza figures no SWAT teams showed up.
Great music was still being made at Prime, and unforgettable moments kept happening. Souza and Curtsinger recalled a rainy afternoon spent sitting in the back parking lot, which borders the Fore River estuary, listening to musician Gary Mears “making these crazy synthesizer orchestras” through the open window of his studio. But Mears was also the one who busted a bunch of low-lifes huffing spray paint in their practice space — twice. The second time, he kicked them out.
More than few groups stopped paying rent, or left, or both. Gallagher recalled showing up for rehearsal one night to discover the electricity was out, apparently because the electric bill hadn’t been paid. Bands started organizing benefit shows to raise money for Prime’s survival.
That’s when Curtsinger stepped up. By last September, he had personally collected about $16,000 in back rent from tenants past and present. He met with Tony Donovan of Fishman Realty, which manages properties on the point, and took over the lease. He’s made rent every month since. All 14 monthly studios are full and the studio rented daily is busy.
At the end of February, Curtsinger got a call from Atlantic Records. Singer-songwriter Matt Hires was opening for Matchbox Twenty at the Augusta Civic Center and needed a place to practice before the gig. The record company asked Curtsinger to e-mail photos of the rehearsal room, and to his surprise, called back and booked the time. A few weeks later, Curtsinger pulled a dead rat out of the ceiling.
Souza’s opinion of The Forefront hasn’t changed since he wrote his op-ed. If anything, his position has hardened.
“It’s fuckin’ criminal,” he said. “To be underneath a development like this, where all the advantages are given to the people with the money and the power and the interests .… There’s no voice, there’s no representative, there’s no legal right we have to stand on this point and be like, ‘No, you can’t bulldoze us like we have nothing.’ There’s no support for that. So the best hope, I think, is just to try to stick with each other in a group and use each other’s mutual advantage.”
Like what happened in the rat room the next day. “The smell [was] still kind of there,” Curtsinger said. “I was just really not looking forward to crawling back in there again.” Enter Calvin, a college drop-out who moved to Maine to play metal and rents a room for his nascent band, Stone Tools. He and Curtsinger have become good friends. “Calvin’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go up. Fuck it,’” said Curtsinger. “We put a respirator on him and gave him a trash bag and a big flashlight, and we’re like, ‘OK, here’s what you’re lookin’ for …. You want to get all the insulation and all the rat shit you can find. And if you find there’s another dead rat, great.’”
Curtsinger said he stays at Grime overnight most nights, for his own peace of mind. Pipes can break, burglars can return, and he wants to be present and prepared. He and Souza are on a first-name basis with the dozen or so homeless people who camp in the area — Kevin, John, The Other Kevin, The Moper — and make a point to meet the new transients who arrive. They’re like the Thompson’s Point Neighborhood Watch, but that’s not why Thompson has their back.
“The way that culture moves is by people experimenting,” Thompson said. “Whether that is audible or loud or pretty or ugly, it’s people who believe in what they’re doing getting out there to do it.” The building Grime occupies is “not a building worth keeping,” he added, “but what goes on there is absolutely worth keeping …. The least I can do is try to help find ways for them to keep doing what they’re doing. I agree it’s invaluable.”
To that end, Thompson has been in discussions to secure another location for Curtsinger, Souza and crew. The space under consideration could eventually have more studios than Grime does and it’s nearby. Curtsinger said he’s optimistic, but declined to say much more while negotiations are ongoing. The Forefront developers aren’t offering financial assistance, but Curtsinger is confident his team will be able to raise the money needed to build-out a new space. He’s putting out a call to all the bands that used Prime in the past to be part of a big outdoor benefit show being organized this spring for that effort. He also hopes to secure grant money, if necessary.
Grime is not a live music venue, though occasionally bands will set up in a common area and play for small groups of fellow musicians and friends. And it’s never been marketed for artists, but visual artists like Souza, Gallagher and Alex use their rooms for that purpose, too.
“Coming from a much more rural area, it’s an incredible sanctuary,” said Alex, 24. “Not that Portland’s a huge city or anything, but I definitely had my own doubts about moving to the city for the reason of not having a wholesome place to create art, and struggled with that for a long time, living in a very small apartment and only having one room. All the other studio spaces I was looking at were far too expensive. I found this place last summer and was completely blown away by that juxtaposition of the natural and the industrial, and how it just really works as a channel for that creative energy and gives a lot of inspiration in its own space — in its own rustic, yet grimy, way.”
The Forefront developers had originally planned to include a concert hall with seating for about 4,500 in their project, but that part of the plan has been scrapped, Thompson said. Three new hotel projects have been started on the peninsula since The Forefront was proposed, but Thompson said his team ran the numbers and it still makes financial sense to build a hotel.
The Forefront is a gamble. In a way, it’s similar to the process an artist undertakes — make something new and see if the public responds. Will people drive to Thompson’s Point to watch minor-league basketball games amid a sprawling office park? Will the event facility attract conventions and help fill the hotel? Can restaurants survive out there?
“I think what they’re doing is part of the long history of folks who are pushing their craft as hard as they can and having fun taking risks,” Thompson said of his former student’s group. “What he’s doing and what we’re doing is really not that different.”