That’s Our Dump!
The unexpected evolution of Thompson’s Point
by Chris Busby
After a brief hiatus, That’s My Dump! returns this month with another update on the condition of a dilapidated property we profiled five years ago. In August of 2011 we published a cover story about Thompson’s Point, the spit of land between the Fore River and Interstate 295, in Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood. The 30-acre site was “the biggest dump in Portland,” Bollard correspondent Anders Nielsen wrote at the time, an “industrial wasteland” blighted by “beat-up buildings” and heaps of construction debris and rusty junk.
Earlier that summer, the City Council had green-lighted a proposal to transform the property into a $100 million project dubbed The Forefront at Thompson’s Point. The master plan included two multistory office buildings, a 125-room hotel, restaurants, a concert hall, a huge parking garage, a sports-medicine laboratory, and a new arena for the Maine Red Claws, the minor-league basketball team that began playing at the city-owned Portland Expo in 2009. The impetus for the mega-project was the Red Claws owners’ desire to give their team its own place to practice and play home games (the Expo is also used for high school sports, which limited the Claws’ access to the building). When the team wasn’t using its new facility on the Point, the arena could be rented out for concerts and corporate events like trade shows and conventions.
Portland was still staggering beneath the burden of the Great Recession, but it seemed that if any consortium of Maine moneymen could pull off a project this ambitious, it was this one. The Red Claws ownership group was (and still is) like an all-star team of regional real estate tycoons and corporate executives, and the Forefront development group was drawn from its ranks. It included Bill Ryan Sr., the chairman and chief executive of TD Banknorth from 1989 to 2007; his son, Bill Ryan Jr., a former attorney whose portfolio included Oxford Plains Speedway; Steve Goodrich, the founder and CEO of PowerPay, who’d recently purchased the failed Portland Public Market on Preble Street and converted it into his credit-card-processing company’s headquarters; Steve Woods, founder and leader of the Falmouth-based marketing firm TideSmart Global; and Steve Griswold, a developer and operator of numerous office buildings, hotels, condos, and one of the country’s first “condotels” (The Sheraton Harborside Hotel, in Portsmouth).
In addition to the considerable financial resources and connections the Forefront group had, it got a big hand up (or hand out, if you prefer) from the citizens of Portland, whose representatives on the City Council gave the developers a tax break estimated to be worth over $30 million during the next three decades. That’s why the heading of our August 2011 story wasn’t “That’s My Dump!” It was “That’s Our Dump!” If The Forefront at Thompson’s Point succeeded, it would owe its success in no small measure to the generosity of Portland residents, who collectively allowed its well-heeled investors to keep tens of millions of dollars’ worth of property tax money, a sum the developers claimed was necessary to make the mega-project profitable enough to build.
But The Forefront did not succeed, at least as originally envisioned. “If all goes according to plan,” Nielsen concluded, “by the fall of 2013, the biggest dump in Portland may be the biggest attraction in town.” Instead, 2013 came and went without any discernible improvement on Thompson’s Point. By then, most of the partners were out of the picture, including all three Steves (Griswold passed away in early 2013), and Jon Jennings, the Red Claws’ founding president and general manager. Jennings sold his stake in the basketball team in the summer of 2012, reportedly to focus on bringing The Forefront to fruition, but left the project about six months later, when he was hired to be the assistant city manager in charge of economic development in South Portland.
Jennings became Portland’s City Manager in the summer of 2015. Sitting in his spacious, wood-paneled City Hall office last month, I asked Jennings what happened to the grand plans he’d unveiled for Thompson’s Point half a decade ago. How could a development group with that kind of pedigree fail to even get a shovel in the ground?
“We felt as though there was really an opportunity,” Jennings said, “but then you kind of get to the financing part, and that’s when the reality hits.”
“If you think back to that time, 2010, 2011, the country was still emerging from the [financial] crisis,” he said. “I also think banks continued to not look to spend a lot of money on investments and so forth. And certainly that was the case at the time, regardless of pedigree.”
There’s an irony here, and maybe a dash of karma, given that the elder Ryan captained TD Banknorth during a period when it was busy gobbling up smaller community banks all over New England, part of a national wave of consolidation that’s made it harder for entrepreneurs in small cities like Portland to get financing. Jennings also said that the so-called “anchor tenants” they’d lined up for the hotel and office space backed out before leases could be signed — agreements that would have given bankers more confidence in the project’s viability.
The exodus of investors left only one managing partner in the original Forefront team, the least experienced and most unlikely player on the squad: an art history professor named Chris Thompson, Griswold’s step-son. Together with Jed Troubh, son of the late Portland attorney and former Mayor Bill Troubh, Thompson is slowly but surely making the project on the Point a reality. And, more importantly, Thompson and Troubh are creating the kind of development that their silent investment partners, the people of Portland, can genuinely benefit from and be proud to call their own.
A psychic toilet
Back in the summer of 2011, the Forefront team was desperate to get its big tax break as soon as possible. The developers pressured city officials to put the 30-year deal on a fast-track, claiming that a delay of even two weeks could sink the entire project before it started. The City Council complied and scheduled a special meeting on an off-week in order to approve the agreement before the end of June. The final vote was (pardon the pun) a slam dunk. Not only was it unanimous, but the city agreed not to cap the total amount of cash the developers could keep at $31.5 million. As a result, if the $100 million project was successful enough in future years to warrant even more construction, these (already stupendously rich) businessmen would be allowed to keep even more public money.
The deal is what’s known as a tax-increment-financing agreement, or TIF. It allows developers to keep a portion of the additional property taxes they’d normally owe on the increased value their project creates. Under the terms of the Forefront deal, which are still in effect, the developers get to keep 75 percent of the tax money they’d otherwise have to pay on the project’s increased value during its first 10 years. That percentage drops down to 60, then 50, and finally 40 percent in the last decade of the agreement. On average, the TIF lets the Thompson’s Point team keep over half the taxes due on their new buildings (and all the taxable things inside them) through 2041.
In retrospect, one wonders whether the developers’ haste to get the deal done was less about worries that investors and tenants would get cold feet, as their lawyer claimed, and more a concern that the public, if given more time to digest the details, would oppose the TIF. Because the more you think about that deal, the worse it looks.
Yes, The Forefront would create jobs during and after construction, but the same can be said for any commercial project. It hardly seems fair to grant a huge tax break simply because the developers are already wealthy enough to undertake an especially large project.
The Forefront team argued that they needed public assistance because Thompson’s Point is an expensive place to build. The sole road accessing the mini-peninsula would have to be widened to handle the increased traffic their development was expected to generate, safety upgrades had to be made where that road crosses train tracks (the Amtrak and Concord Coach Lines station is located at the foot of the peninsula), and the ground beneath the Point is a soft marine clay, so supports for tall buildings must be driven deeper underground than usual.
But those same attributes — proximity to mass transit, waterfront access and views — are also selling points that attract tenants and add value to the project without the developers lifting a finger. Furthermore, the city decided to dedicate 25 percent of the additional tax money it will collect to improve public transit into and out of Thompson’s Point — which is, in effect, another public subsidy piled atop the giant tax break.
The hotel, restaurants and office space would benefit the city by increasing economic activity, but only insofar as they didn’t draw business away from other hotels, restaurants and office buildings in town where the owners, now at a competitive disadvantage, have to pay their property tax bills in full. The Red Claws would get a new, larger place to play, which is a win for the team’s owners, but the Expo would lose a major tenant and all the revenue the games generated for the city, which is a loss for the public.
Another publicly owned venue, the Cumberland County Civic Center (now Cross Insurance Arena), stood to lose every time the publicly subsidized, but privately owned, event center on Thompson’s Point attracted a trade show or convention that would otherwise have happened there. And a similar dynamic was at play in the concert scene.
Back in 2011, Lauren Wayne — who booked shows at the State Theatre for Bowery Presents, which was one of the country’s last independent, regional concert promoters before industry giant AEG Live swallowed it earlier this year — doubted that the Portland market could even support shows larger than those she brought to the State Theatre and, on occasion, Merrill Auditorium (another city-owned venue). The State can accommodate about 1,700 people; Merrill seats 1,900. The Forefront team’s concert hall was expected to have room for up to 2,000 people, and the Red Claws arena would have fit about 4,500 fans, roughly half the capacity the Civic Center had at the time.
Wayne told the Portland Press Herald that The Forefront’s entry into Portland’s concert market would be less detrimental if the developers allowed any promoter to book shows there, rather than entering into an exclusive arrangement with one of the national entertainment behemoths that typically handle tours by big-name acts. Comments made at the time by Bill Ryan Jr. seemed to indicate that the Forefront would be the exclusive venue of a national promoter.
The mega-project also threatened those at the lower, grungier end of the Portland music scene: rock bands that needed a place to practice without disturbing the neighbors. The Forefront team planned to demolish pretty much every building on the site, which would have eliminated three spaces used by local musicians, including Prime Artist Rehearsal Studios, where acts like Rustic Overtones, Twisted Roots, Sly-Chi and Covered in Bees honed their craft over the years.
The most articulate critic of the Forefront proposal was Greg Souza, a metalhead who dropped out of Maine College of Art and had studio space at Prime. In an op-ed we published in September 2011, “Flushing a psychic toilet,” Souza wrote, “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. … It is necessary for every community to have such a space. It’s a psychic toilet.
“What’s not valuable to me,” he continued, “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.” Souza observed that The Forefront was primarily an attraction for visitors to the city, not locals, and that most of the jobs it promised to create would be low-paying, hospitality-industry drudgery that stifles creativity and personal achievement. “If Thompson’s Point were being developed into a manufacturing facility, I’d be stoked,” he wrote. “But nothing gets made. Development that gets us further into a dead-end economic structure is the advancement of the problem.”
“If you think that a windy, dead-end development with crappy, neo-modern, mishmash buildings near nothing and mostly empty is going to be a new, hip cultural center for Portland, you’re fucked,” Souza concluded. “Not that I think such a place is even worth fuck-all, because what that translates to out of white-people-speak is shitty rows of snotty coffee shops and hipster bullshit fashion emporiums — nothing creative or constructive at all.”
In the spring of 2013, with The Forefront still on the backburner, The Bollard checked back in with the punks at Prime, including Souza and his business partner, Justin Curtsinger (“Doomed Metal,” April 2013). They’d cleaned the place up (relatively speaking) and renamed it Grime Studios.
As we noted in that article, Grime had an unlikely ally determined to help keep its psychic toilet flushing, one of Souza’s former professors at MECA: Chris Thompson.
Thompson appreciated the cultural value of a place like Grime, and worked with Curtsinger and Souza to help them find a new location. “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 told us at the time. Referring to his former student, he added, “What he’s doing and what we’re doing is really not that different.”
In fact, it was very nearly the exact same thing. The new space Thompson found for Grime was inside an old railroad building in the middle of Thompson’s Point, a structure that’s since been dubbed Brick North. Curtsinger and Souza got as far as signing a letter of intent to lease the space before the Grime guys’ partnership acrimoniously imploded. (Curtsinger went on to raise funds to rebuild Grime Studios on Presumpscot Street, in an industrial area of East Deering.)
A few months later, in August 2013, Thompson held a press conference on the Point to announce that the project finally had its first tenant. He donned a red clown nose to break the news: the circus was coming to town.
Send in the clowns
The Circus Conservatory of America was touted as the first institution in the country that would offer a college degree in circus arts (think Cirque du Soleil, not Ringling Bros.). The nonprofit school would also offer workshops and camps for adults and kids, as well as performances for the public. It was expected to eventually fill the Brick North building, and potentially expand into a new structure on the Point after it received accreditation.
The western end of Brick North was renovated and customized specifically for the Circus Conservatory (for example, a section of the floor in the center of the space is actually a sunken trampoline). And Thompson made other investments and accommodations to help the fledgling school get off the ground, including serving on its advisory board. [Full disclosure: my fiancée, Sarah Bouchard, briefly worked for the Conservatory last year; she is also a former student of Thompson’s at MECA.]
The Conservatory was considered the new “anchor tenant” of the project, which was evolving in a decidedly more artsy, and more interesting, direction. The concert hall was scrapped, but an old train shed at the end of the Point was being reimagined as a sheltered space for an outdoor amphitheater capable of accommodating thousands of concert-goers. In addition to Brick North, a slightly larger warehouse-type building oriented parallel to it, dubbed Brick South, was also being saved from the wrecking ball. More small-scale and diverse uses were being eyed for the renovated structures (e.g., a bakery and a café), and by early 2014 there was talk of adding residential units to the project: as many as 120 condominiums.
To get a sense of how radically the project was shifting, consider that, early on, the anchor office tenant on the Point was widely rumored to be WEX, the giant payment-processing company based in South Portland. Instead, the next business to lease space there was Color Me Mine, which boasts of being Portland’s largest paint-your-own-pottery studio.
Another early tenant emblematic of the new approach was the Open Bench Project, a self-described “shared learn/work facility” that provides tools and tutelage for woodworking, metal fabrication, screen printing and experimenting with electronics. Founder Jake Ryan said Thompson and Troubh were instrumental in helping Open Bench establish itself on the Point and grow its membership, which now includes about 150 “makers” of all kinds. Ryan estimates that thousands of people have had some level of engagement with Open Bench’s workshops and events since it opened its doors at the eastern end of Brick South two years ago. (It’s since relocated to another space on the Point.)
“This whole thing is built upon my stomach bile and the generosity of Chris and Jed,” Ryan said. “I think both of them have something in their heart aside from just making the dollars.”
The development now known simply as Thompson’s Point (not “The Forefront at…”) finally found its legs last year. The Circus Conservatory’s performances brought new people to the peninsula, as did a series of big outdoor concerts that summer promoted by the State Theatre, which ended up scoring the exclusive right to book shows there after all. Another partnership with an outside entity birthed The Rink at Thompson’s Point, a public skating facility beneath the old train shed that offered amenities like skate rental and a warming hut serving food and drinks. This winter, a two-story tubing hill is in the works, too.
The Circus Conservatory suspended operations last year and put its plans to offer a degree on hold. But one of its instructors, Josh Oliver, launched a new entity, Circus Maine, that uses its customized space, so classes and monthly performances have continued, as has Thompson’s support of the organization.
By this past summer, Brick North was full of one-of-a-kind, locally owned businesses. At the eastern end, facing the interstate, is Cellardoor Winery, which operates a stunning 5,000-square-foot tasting room and event space. Bissell Brothers, one of Maine’s most popular new craft breweries, has a huge taproom and brewing operation adjacent to Cellardoor. On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady stream of hop-heads could be seen carrying boxes of canned beer to their cars in the parking lot, many of which had out-of-state plates.
Jason Loring, co-proprietor of the popular downtown Portland restaurants Nosh, Slab, and Rhum, opened Big J’s Chicken Shack in a nook between Bissell Brothers and another booze business, Stroudwater Distillery, which began making small batches of bourbon, gin and vodka there a few months ago, and also has a handsome tasting room.
There’s a unique synergy between the businesses in Brick North. For example, you can order fried chicken at Big J’s and eat it at Bissell Brothers while drinking sample-sized glasses of ale, or settle into a booth in Stroudwater’s tasting room and chow down there. More adventurous customers can score a bottle of bourbon from Stroudwater and mix it with a cola from the cooler at Big J’s while sitting down to a plate of chicken and waffles. After that, you can follow a hallway at the back of Big J’s to the International Cryptozoology Museum, a quirky institution devoted to “the study of hidden or unknown animals,” like Bigfoot, whose wooden statue stands outside, gazing at the river.
Sitting at a wooden booth in Stroudwater’s spacious tasting room, Thompson told me that though it seems like the businesses in Brick North came together naturally, the process was anything but easy.
“It’s been a huge struggle. It’s been a long struggle,” he said. “Finding the right people and finding a way for them to fit into the space next to everybody else is sort of like playing Tetris — if the wrong block didn’t fit at the right time, two or three spaces didn’t work, and then we had to rethink it.”
“We drove our broker crazy,” he added. “He would come with a 24,000-square-foot call center and we were like, ‘Can’t do it.’ They maybe would pay a little more rent than some of our tenants, but it wasn’t the right fit and it wasn’t what we wanted to try to accomplish. … That wasn’t who we thought we wanted to be, and that’s not what we thought the site needed.”
Thompson and Troubh are committed to bringing unique local enterprises and nonprofits to Thompson’s Point, “so it really feels like Portland when you’re here.” The decision to refurbish, rather than demolish, the Brick North and Brick South buildings is a big part of what Thompson calls place-making. “Whether we would have achieved that with the first iteration of the project, I don’t know,” he conceded. “I think it’s working now.”
That sense of history and place also happens to be what the public wants these days, said Soleil Dufour, the project’s event manager. Brick South will soon be ready to host events for as many as 2,500 people — the Portland Flower Show, which lost its home this year, is expected to take place there next spring — and the wedding and event planners Dufour has met find the cavernous building’s wooden beams and steel girders, which date back to 1903, charming.
“You know that analogy of fixing the airplane in flight? That’s really what we did,” Thompson told me. “We had to find a way to rethink [the project] and reposition it and reimagine what it could be, bring it online in phases in a more slow and deliberative way, and change our outlook on how we used what was already here.”
The 125-room hotel is still in the plans, located between Brick South and the amphitheater, and construction is expected to begin next year. Thompson’s own hospitality management company will operate the hotel, though it will bear a corporate brand (the identity of which he declined to disclose at this time).
To the east of Brick South, a new two-story building will also be built next year. Thompson likewise declined to disclose that building’s tenant last month, saying only that it’s a non-profit cultural institution. But a Google search led to an article in the online commercial-real-estate publication Bisnow that provided the answer: the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, which has been looking to move from its home on Free Street to a new, larger building for a few years now.
Office space is still in the mix, but Thompson said it’s no longer “a driver for the project. We’ve found a way to drive the project ourselves and make it compelling and interesting and successful irrespective of how quickly office comes online.” A sports facility remains in the plans, too, but it’s no longer the entire project’s raison d’être. Thompson observed that the Red Claws are “playing comfortably in the Expo” these days. “They’ve made some investments in the Expo. If and when the sports facility building begins, they’re still open to consider moving there. We’re still interested in exploring that possibility.”
The idea of building condos, first raised two years ago, is now off the table in favor of plans to construct over 30 market-rate apartments, instead. Thompson and Troubh told me they want to build the kind of “workforce” housing that the people employed on the Point can afford to rent. “We really like the apartment model. I think it’s what Portland needs,” said Thompson. “I’d like to offer it.”
“The good thing about Chris and Jed is they’re very fluid,” said Loring. “Some people might view this as a negative, but being so close to this, I absolutely don’t view it as a negative, ’cause this is how you have to be in the restaurant business — you have to literally change your plans constantly, all the time.”
Loring and fellow restaurateur Michael Fraser, who owns the West End speakeasy Bramhall, are partners with Thompson and Troubh in an entity called Fifth Food Group that Loring said will develop more restaurant space on the Point and elsewhere in the years to come.
Thompson’s Point will continue to grow “slow and steady,” Loring said. “The plans are definitely not gonna be outrageous and over the top. They’re growing a place that when you walk down there at the end of the day, when it’s finished, it’s gonna be quiet roads, sidewalks with trees everywhere and lights, and it’s gonna feel like a mini-downtown area.
“That’s the best way I can describe it,” he continued. “It’s almost gonna be like this seaside Old Port, but it’s a mix of old and new. … It’s gonna have things for kids, it’ll have things for adults, hopefully it has a place for people to stay and do functions and get married.
“If the Red Claws go down there,” Loring added, almost as an afterthought, “even better.”