District 1 Councilor Will Gorham, left, was at odds with Councilor Nick Mavodones, one of four citywide representatives, over Old Port bar licenses. (photos/The Fuge)
Council cuts three Old Port bar licenses
Two licenses left; Industry to become “upscale” pub
By Chris Busby
A night of lengthy debate and high drama ended late Wednesday night when the Portland City Council voted 6-3 to reduce the number of special liquor licenses available for Old Port bars. There were previously 27 Old Port Overlay Licenses available, 22 of which are already held by bars and restaurants in the so-called Old Port Overlay Zone. The council cut the number of available licenses to 24.
Councilors in favor of the reduction cited the relatively high number of police calls the Old Port district generates, and the impact this has on the city budget and public safety citywide.
Councilor Karen Geragthy said she supported the reduction in part because the need to maintain a heavy police presence in the district hurts the police department’s ability to provide community policing in other areas of the city, like the West End and Parkside neighborhoods that Geraghty, the District 2 councilor, represents. A special tax on Old Port bars only covers a fraction of the cost of maintaining that police presence, straining the city budget, she said.
At-large councilors Jim Cloutier, Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones opposed the reduction, and tried unsuccessfully to postpone a vote on the measure “indefinitely.” They noted that police calls were increasing even though the number of bars with Overlay Licenses has decreased slightly in the past few years.
Councilor Mavodones argued that problems stem from the number of people in the area, not the number of establishments serving alcohol, and pointed out that the Overlay law makes no provisions regarding the size or capacity of bars in the area. Opponents also argued that reducing the number of licenses would just force more people into fewer bars, creating more problems.
All five councilors representing specific districts and neighborhoods in the city supported the reduction, including Mayor Jim Cohen. At-large councilor Ed Suslovic joined this majority.
Meanwhile, two applications for Overlay Licenses were also before the council that night: one for Chaotic, a dance club two young women hope to open at the corner of Fore and Exchange Streets; and one for Right Proper Charlie’s, a pub-style restaurant and bar that Industry owner Brian Hanson plans to open in the space currently occupied by his Wharf Street dance club.
Neither application was approved, though both establishments could be open soon.
Chaotic’s application was denied because neither applicant was present for the meeting. The council indicated it is willing to reconsider the application at its next meeting, in February, because one of the owners was unable to attend due to a family emergency.
Hanson’s case is unique, in that he’s operated The Industry for a dozen years and now wants to transform the often raucous club – which offered after-hours dancing to underage patrons — into a classy pub similar to Gritty McDuff’s, on Fore Street.
Overlay licenses are only required if a business generates over half its revenue from alcohol sales. The Industry reported that it made more money in cover charges and food sales than booze sales, so it did not previously need the special license. Hanson sought an Overlay License for Right Proper Charlie’s in case the pub – which he anticipates will make slightly more revenue from food than from booze – ends up making more than half its revenues from beer, wine and liquor sales.
Hanson and his attorney, Richard Berne, initially offered to transform the Industry into an “upscale” pub only if the council granted the Overlay License. If the license was denied, Berne told councilors in a Jan. 11 letter that Hanson would scrap plans for the pub and continue to operate the Industry.
Given the crowd problems on Wharf Street late at night, councilors – led by Will Gorham, who represents the East End and the Old Port – have indicated they will consider banning after-hours entertainment in the district next month. Berne warned that such a move would likely result in “protracted, costly litigation,” with The Industry suing to maintain its right to host dancing after 1 a.m.
The transformation of the dance club into a sit-down pub attracting, in Berne’s words, “an older and more upscale clientele,” was presented to councilors as a “win-win” situation. But several councilors balked at giving Right Proper Charlie’s the special license, in large part because they would also have to waive a requirement that bars with these licenses be over 100 feet away from other Overlay bars. The Industry is in the same building as The Iguana, a similar dance club that holds an Overlay License.
The council had reached a tense impasse with Berne and Hanson. Then, near midnight, almost four hours after the meeting began, Hanson finally agreed to forgo the Overlay License and move forward with plans to turn the club into a pub.
Hanson told the council he was “reluctant to walk away from a successful business [The Industry]” that could have continued to host after-hours dancing through this summer, but said he preferred to cooperate with the city rather than pursue a confrontational course of action.
The risk for Hanson is that after a year, if his pub makes more money on alcohol sales than food sales, he will have to get an Overlay License to continue operating. By then, it’s quite possible there will be no Overlay Licenses available, since there are now only two left and several businesses are expected to apply for them in the coming months.
Hanson said Right Proper Charlie’s will likely open in February.