Public Market going on the market


photo/Sean Wilkinson
photo/Sean Wilkinson

Public Market going on the market 
Vendors sad, wary, but not surprised

By Chris Busby

Owners of small businesses in the Portland Public Market arrived at work this morning to find an envelope sticking out of their cash drawers. Inside, a note from the market’s management informed them that the market is being put up for sale. 

Picking up this morning’s Portland Press Herald, the vendors realized they were not the first to be informed of this development. 

The daily reported today that the non-profit Libra Foundation intends to put all of its remaining properties in downtown Portland on the market. 

Those properties include the three office buildings of Canal Plaza, a parking garage and parking lot on Fore Street, the Maine Bank & Trust building on Congress Street, and the Public Market and its parking garage on Preble Street. Libra hopes to get over $65 million by selling its Portland properties as a package, the daily reported, though it may sell some of the properties individually if a package deal cannot be worked out.

Of all these properties, only the market would potentially undergo major changes in the event of a sale. The market as a whole has never been profitable, vendor turnover has been high, and any rent increase would likely force more vendors to leave. The pending sale also complicates efforts to bring new businesses into the building, which has several vacancies. 

Joe Boulos, CEO of CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Company, which manages Libra’s Portland properties (including, since last year, the market), told the daily he doubts a new owner would continue to operate the market in its present form – at least if it was sold apart from the other buildings. 

“[T]hey would have to put it in a higher and better use,” Boulos told Press Heraldreporter Tux Turkel earlier this week. “The rents won’t justify the selling price.” Boulos speculated that the market could be remodeled into office space or a “catering center” of some kind.

Market vendors reached for comment this morning were generally disappointed by the news, but not particularly surprised. Rumors of a sale have been swirling for the past year, fueled by major changes in the market’s management structure, a reduction in lease terms from three years to one year, and major cutbacks in special events and other activities market management previously undertook to attract customers. 

The Bollard documented these changes in a Jan. 22 article. At the time, Libra Foundation president Owen Wells told The Bollard that Libra was considering selling the market, but had not yet made a formal decision. He alluded to Libra’s other Portland properties, and said, “We’re constantly balancing our portfolio.” The impending sale is part of a broader shift Libra is making away from its urban holdings and toward projects in rural areas, the daily noted.

The market’s potential sale already has some vendors preparing to leave. Mike Heathers, co-owner of Portland Spice Company, said “we don’t feel we have any choice but to explore other options.” 

Heathers noted Boulos’ comments about the market’s viability under new ownership, and he too thinks a sale would entail major changes to the building’s structure and mission, which was originally to provide a space for Maine farmers and vendors to sell Maine products. 

“If it does sell, there’s no question it will be the demise of the market,” said Heathers. 

Portland Spice Company started in the market about six months after the building opened in the fall of 1998. Though many other businesses have come and gone over the years, Portland Spice was able to survive and even grow at the Public Market. 

Heathers said he’s grateful for the opportunity the market provided, but said “we wish we had more warning” about the building’s pending sale. His business has developed a base of customers from all over the country, many of whom make a trip to Portland once a year and visit Portland Spice Company to stock up of his products. 

Portland Spice’s current lease expires in October, though the building’s sale could spur it and other vendors to leave before then. “It would have been nice to let the customers who come annually know where we are and how to contact us,” said Heathers, who isn’t sure whether his business will be able to relocate and survive in another space downtown.

Portland restauranteur Dana Street said he too had heard rumors of a sale for many months. Business at Scales, the seafood restaurant he opened at the market last year, has been mixed, he said. Though the eatery does well during lunchtime, Street said attracting customers during evening hours has been a challenge.

As for Scales’ future at the market, Street said he’s “inclined to do what events allow,” and is waiting to see what effect a sale will have on the market before making any decisions. 

Kris Horton, proprietor of K. Horton’s Specialty Foods, is one of the market’s few remaining original tenants. She too has noticed a dramatic drop-off in advertising and other support market management previously provided to vendors. 

The current management “has made it quite clear they have no intention of marketing the businesses” inside the market, Horton said. She added, “the sooner someone buys it, the better.”

Horton is optimistic in this regard, and said a sale could reinvigorate the market. “This could be an amazing place with the right inspiration” at the management level, she said. “I just look forward to a fresh breath of air around here.”

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