The Bollard’s View

It became public…

The Portland Press Herald must be feeling guilty, and rightly so. 

How else to explain why it’s playing the possible (note emphasis) relocation of some Portland Public Market vendors to a building in Monument Square like it’s a done deal?

The daily pulled a fast one on vendors at the Portland Public Market last February, when Tux Turkel reported the Libra Foundation was selling the market as part of a mega-package of downtown real estate. 

With the help of a staff researcher, it seems Turkel had time to write a lengthy article detailing the foundation’s history in Portland real estate and future endeavors in rural Maine. The Feb. 10 story had a sub-heading titled “SURPRISED REACTIONS,” under which Turkel quoted one person: city planning and development director Lee Urban (a very busy guy, by the way – generally not a source easy to reach on short notice).

There’s no indication in the Feb. 10 front-page piece that Turkel made any attempt to contact even one of the small business owners in the market directly affected by the sale. They had their own “SURPRISED REACTIONS” when they picked up the paper the next day and learned their livelihoods were in jeopardy.

The Press Herald sent two cub reporters down to the market that day to get reaction to its story from customers and vendors. And the week after his front-page “SURPRISE,” Turkel himself was down there buddying up to the vendors to find out what they were going to do next. Upon learning they were organizing a campaign to “save the market,” Turkel now thought it’d be a good idea to get reaction from both sides, and included quotes from Libra officials dismissing the vendors’ campaign as futile in his Feb. 17 front-pager.

Editorially, the Press Herald has had nothing but praise for Libra and condescension for the struggling entrepreneurs screwed over by the immensely wealthy foundation. “Fans of Public Market had better get creative,” advised the headline of a Feb. 20 editorial. “It’s hard to fault Libra for looking to shed a money-losing proposition,” the daily’s editorial board opined that day. “Since the start, the market has been in the red. Rents charged to the 15 vendors and two restaurants fail to cover half the cost of utilities, taxes, insurance and security, [Libra] officials say.”

So Libra created a “cramped, idiosyncratic indoor bazaar ” that was “[a] money-loser since Day One” (quotes from the daily’s June 2, 2006, editorial), but as owners and managers of the market, they bear no responsibility for its failure in the Herald‘s eyes. 

Gimmie a break. And while you’re at it, gimmie the acknowledgement and attribution, in print, The Bollard should have gotten for breaking the story about the potential (again, note emphasis) Monument Square deal. 

The Bollard published its story at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, May 31. The Press Herald published Turkel’s version of it on Thursday, June 1, and made no mention the news was previously reported by another media outlet. On Friday, June 2, Press Herald reporter Matt Wickenheiser piggy-backed on Turkel’s piece from the day before.

“The Monument Square move became public Wednesday,” Wickenheiser wrote.

It “became public,” Matt? How’d that happen? Did the vendors hold a press conference, or send out a press release – you know, make a “public” announcement of some sort?

No, Matt, they didn’t, and you sure as hell knew that. One of the vendors, Bill Milliken of Maine Beer and Beverage, called Turkel on Wednesday, May 31, and told him the deal was being explored. He also told Tux the story was already onThe Bollard. Turkel “kind of grumbled a little bit” upon hearing that, Milliken told me today.

Turkel has been periodically checking in with Milliken and other vendors to find out where they’re going, and he’s been “very nervous someone was going to get the scoop out, especially the TV stations,” Milliken said. 

I’ve also been checking in with vendors on this matter over the past few weeks. It’s basic reporting, and it was pure chance that I happened to call Milliken last Tuesday, May 30, just before he was going to meet the guy in charge of the Monument Square building, Alex Tessman, who himself is leasing the property from its owner, developer Jeff Cohen. Also by chance, Milliken was still there when I walked downtown later that afternoon to take a picture of the old Surplus Store before it got dark, and Tessman invited me inside to tour the space with the vendors and a banker.

Having heard Tessman’s discussion with Milliken, market vendor Kris Horton, and the banker that day, it was clear to me that any deal to create a mini-public market there was at a very preliminary stage. Tessman was interested in the idea, but was certainly not committed to it last week, and the finances of such an undertaking had hardly begun to be assessed. We reported this accordingly: the vendors “may have” found a new home; “[d]iscussions… are at an early stage, and no lease has yet been signed.”

It seems Turkel, however, has already inked the deal. His June 1 article begins: “A vacant storefront in Monument Square will become the new home for four of the original vendors in the soon-to-be-sold Portland Public Market.” 

Is that so, Tux? Did you talk to Tessman about that? Did you even attempt to call him? There’s no indication in your June 1 article that you so much as dialed Tessman’s number to get his side of the story, and since the fate of any deal is almost entirely up to him, he might make a good source, don’t ya think? 

Matt “It Became Public” Wickenheiser had two days to call Tessman for his follow-up. Reading his June 2 article, it’s clear he had time to call Jan Beitzer of Portland’s Downtown District, track down Urban at City Hall, and wander around Monument Square getting quotes on the nonexistent deal from business owners and random passersby. There’s no indication he made any attempt to talk to Tessman, either – no quote, no “Tessman could not be reached for comment.”

That’s shitty, because if the financing don’t materialize, or Tessman changes his mind (as he has every right to do), to readers of the state’s largest newspaper, he’ll look like the bad guy who screwed the vendors over – not Libra officials, whom the daily consider paragons of charity and virtue. Funny how that works out. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’d be great if the vendors established themselves at the old Surplus Store. Who wouldn’t prefer that to an empty, run-down building in the heart of downtown?

But Milliken and Horton have only given Tessman letters stating their intent to rent the property he’s leasing from Cohen. Wickenheiser and Turkel may be lazy, petty, half-assed reporters, but I doubt they and their editors are dumb enough to consider letters of intent binding contracts. 

On the off chance the Press Herald does consider signed letters of intent rock-solid proof a deal is forthcoming, I’ll close by including a copy of the letter of intent I intend to send Frank Blethen of Blethen Maine Newspapers, the daily’s majority owner….

— Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.