Gossip from May and June 2006
By Chris Busby
June 29, 2006
McRae back in the fray
Former Portland School Committee member Teri McRae wants to get back on the school board. Should she be successful this fall, if you thought the board’s partisan bickering made for great public access television this past school year, stock up on popcorn now, ’cause you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
McRae served a three-year term on the board representing District 4 until last year, when she was unseated by newcomer Lori Gramlich. This time, McRae is seeking one of the board’s four at-large seats, which represent the entire city. In 2004, McRae, running as a Republican, was elected Cumberland County’s Register of Probate, a position she still holds.
McRae’s previous tenure on the board was marked by a tenacious effort to hold school administrators accountable for budget and policy decisions. Her fiscal conservatism drew support from what some might consider an unlikely group: the registered Greens on the school committee. For example, she joined in last fall’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to reduce the size of Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor’s raise. [See “School board meltdown.”]
School board races are officially non-partisan, but McRae isn’t shy about identifying and proposing to take advantage of the partisan rift between registered Greens and Democrats on the board. If elected in November, she said she will be “meeting with the Greens on the school committee and looking for their support so I can be chair for a year.”
There are currently four registered Greens and five registered Democrats on the school board. In an internal vote last fall that divided along party lines, registered Dem Ellen Alcorn was chosen to be the board’s chairperson this year.
McRae isn’t impressed with Alcorn’s performance.
“I think the school committee runs really badly,” said McRae, who feels the board should take a much more active role in fiscal and educational decisions, rather than essentially ratifying decisions made by the administration. “The school committee needs to be a very different animal, and I think that starts only with the chair.”
Candidates for city office don’t formally take out nomination papers until next month, but McRae expects to be campaigning in a crowded field. Former Portland Planning Board chair Jaimey Caron has said he intends to make another run for an at-large seat this fall (Caron, who is not enrolled in a political party, lost a close three-way race for an at-large seat last fall). A registered Green named Kevin Gardella has also announced his interest in the post, and sources say Sarah Thompson, an active parent-volunteer in Portland schools, also intends to run – likely with the support of local Democrats.
Center for Cultural Exchange under contract
The Center for Cultural Exchange’s signature building in Longfellow Square is in the process of being sold, but the buyer wishes to remain anonymous until the deal is sealed later this summer. The non-profit arts and cultural organization announced it was selling its performance space and offices in late May, and the property went on the market earlier this month.
CCE board president Jay Young said details of the sale are still being negotiated, and the new owner will not be announced until that party wishes to go public. The Bollard was able to reach the prospective buyer through other channels, but is respecting that party’s request to withhold details pending the sale’s completion. Stay tuned for the scoop later this summer.
June 22, 2006
What’s up with the Westin?
Condo/hotel project delayed; developers keep mum
The $110 million Westin hotel, condo and retail complex planned for the former Jordan’s Meats plant on Franklin Arterial appears to be in trouble. Work on the project was expected to begin late last winter and be completed next summer, but the developers have yet to take the first step toward actual construction – getting a demolition permit – and are not responding to press inquiries about the project’s status.
City officials are at a loss to explain why work has not begun, though several theories are circulating through the rumor mill.
The project – which includes 229 hotel rooms, 95 condo units, a restaurant, retail and underground parking – is a joint effort by the Rhode Island-based Procaccianti Group, a real estate investment company with a nationwide portfolio of properties, and the Liberty Group, the South Portland-based group of companies headed by local developer Michael Liberty.
In March, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against Liberty, claiming he improperly diverted millions of dollars from a Philadelphia-based investment fund for his own use and for third parties associated with his business interests. Liberty’s attorney has denied the charges in the ongoing lawsuit, and the SEC suit did not allege any misconduct related to the Westin partnership.
Procaccianti spokesperson Ralph Izzi and Bob Herron, an executive with the mortgage banking firm working on the Westin project, told the Portland Press Herald in March that Liberty’s legal woes will not affect the project, but observers inside and outside City Hall aren’t so sure that isn’t a factor.
Izzi did not respond to a request for comment. Herron referred questions to Izzi, and noted, “I don’t even know some of the intimate details” about the development. A secretary at The Liberty Group said Liberty was unavailable for comment. Told this reporter was inquiring about the Westin project, she referred the question to Andrew Bedard, the Liberty Group’s senior vice president for investments, asset management and new development. Bedard did not return that call seeking comment.
One city councilor privately shared a rumor that Liberty angered his Procaccianti partners by trumpeting the Westin condos’ multimillion-dollar price tags, when in fact the group intended to sell the units for prices in the $500,000 range.
In a Dec. 20, 2005, article on the front page of the Press Herald‘s business section, staff writer Tux Turkel highlighted the possibility condos in The Residences at the Westin Portland could sell for as much as $5 million. However, Turkel noted that such a high price would result only if a buyer purchased more than one unit and combined them, particularly if the units occupied the upper floors of the nearly 100-foot-tall building. And Turkel attributed those figures to the “developers,” not Liberty specifically.
Still, the councilor noted, a $500,000 price tag is within the range of upper-middle-class homebuyers, who could conceivably sell their current homes to finance a Westin condo. By contrast, multimillion-dollar condos are available to a much smaller group of super-rich individuals, and to the extent the condos are considered out of most buyers’ price range, it becomes harder to market them or secure funding to build them in the first place.
City Inspections Division head Mike Nugent confirmed that no demolition or building permits had been requested for the Westin project, and said his last local contact regarding the project was with its architect, Winton Scott. Nugent said Scott was doing some redesign work “a couple months ago” on the levels of underground parking planned for the site. Scott did not return a call seeking comment.
Some city officials have also speculated that the prospect a luxury hotel could be built nearby on the site of the Portland Ocean Terminal has spooked the Westin developers. That possibility, however, remains just that, as councilors and city staff are just beginning to work on zoning changes which may or may not allow such a development on the waterfront. [See “Ex-mayor, Gov’s brother, push waterfront hotel project.”]
Harborview Properties, a real estate brokerage firm owned by Shipyard Brewing Company president Fred Forsley, had an exclusive arrangement to sell condos at the Westin this spring. That arrangement has since lapsed, Forsley said, as the Westin partners have decided to take that work “in house,” though he added that his firm could still co-broker the sales of some units. [See “Tangled web of interests on the Eastern Waterfront.”]
Forsley said he doesn’t know what the status of the project is now. “I hope it happens,” he said.
The Big Easy, one of Portland’s most popular music venues, is changing hands. A new group of owners is expected to take over the Market Street nightclub later this summer. The incoming group includes Eric Murray, half of the team that ran the Free Street Taverna for a couple years prior to that bar’s transformation into the Dogfish Bar and Grille, a decidedly more upscale establishment. Ken Bell, part of the Brown Street Margarita’s crew for many years, is also on board.
Murray said the new ownership group doesn’t plan to make any major changes to the space, and will continue to offer similar musical fare: rock bands, funk groups, etc. He also said he’s considering serving draft beer in actually glass pints – as opposed to the plastic keg cups customers have long endured there. Baby steps…
June 12, 2006
The Bollard goes suburban
Bollard editor and publisher Chris Busby is now writing a new, monthly column about Portland news for several suburban papers published by Scarborough-based Current Publishing.
The first installment of “The Bollard Report: Dispatches from Portland” ran in last week’s Current, a weekly that covers Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland. Other Current Publishing papers interested in running the column include the Sun Chronicle (which covers Saco and Old Orchard Beach), theAmerican Journal (Westbrook and Gorham), and the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly (Windham, Standish, Raymond, Sebago, Naples and Casco).
“The Bollard Report” runs in the opinion section, and directs readers to The Bollard Web site for more Portland stories and features. The first column detailed challenges being faced by Portland’s arts community.
“I’m very excited to connect with readers of the Current papers,” Busby said (to himself), “many, if not most of whom, shop, dine, work or recreate in Portland, a scary, crime-riddled metropolis full of freaks and weirdos.”
Current Publishing owns a total of six community newspapers, reaching over 100,000 readers in York and Cumberland Counties.
State of the State: Anybody’s guess
Three months after the former manager of the State Theatre announced he was suing venue owner Grant Wilson’s Stonecoast Properties, no lawsuit has materialized and the manager’s lawyer is ducking calls.
Chris Morgan of New Hampshire-based Maine Entertainment LLC said in mid-April that he was suing his former landlord in the historic theater for allegedly misrepresenting the venue’s condition and capacity. [See “Evicted tenant to sue State Theatre owner.”] Records in Cumberland County Superior Court indicate no suit has been filed.
The lawyer Morgan hired in April, Roger Katz, has not returned calls seeking comment. Neither has Morgan.
Wilson declined to comment on the legal matter, but said he’s been cleaning up the property and upgrading its fire escape in hopes of leasing the theater to a new tenant soon.
June 7, 2006
First they came for the Old Port bar owners, and I didn’t speak out…
Portland Mayor Jim Cohen’s new Old Port Night Life Task Force is considering expanding the special zone that regulates bars in the Old Port – a move that could force over half a dozen uptown watering holes to pay a hefty fee for extra police coverage blocks away from their businesses.
The Old Port Overlay Zone, an oddly shaped area that includes 24 bars in the tourist district, could be expanded as far north as Congress Street and as far west as High Street. Restaurants and bars in the zone that make over half their revenue from booze sales are required to pay a “seat tax” based on their legal occupancy. The City Council raised that fee this spring from $4.50 per unit of occupancy, or “seat,” to $15 – a move that will cost most Old Port bar owners well over $1,000 per year.
A group of Old Port bar owners may challenge the fee in court, on grounds it constitutes an illegal tax. If the expansion is approved, they may have some company.
An expansion to Congress and High Streets would put Asylum, Mathew’s, Margarita’s, The Stadium, Styxx, Dogfish Bar and Grille (formerly Free Street Taverna), and The White Heart in the Overlay Zone.
Old Port mega-landlord Steve Baumann, a task force member, noted at the group’s June 6 meeting that Margarita’s’ Brown Street location is a very popular happy hour spot, and many people head to the Old Port after getting happy there first. Other task force members, including Portland’s Downtown District Executive Director Jan Beitzer and City Councilor Will Gorham, generally agreed with this reasoning, and a new, expanded Overlay map is being developed accordingly.
The task force also discussed applying the “seat tax” to any business in the zone open after 11 p.m. (potentially forcing restaurants and places like Bill’s Pizza to pony up fee money) and tweaking the 100-foot dispersal requirement (meant to keep bars at least 100 feet from one another in the Old Port). This requirement has been routinely overridden by the City Council, most recently last Monday night, when it granted an Overlay License to 51 Restaurant and Bar, an “upscale” eatery and cocktail den opening soon in the Wharf Street space last occupied by Salsa. Baumann is that restaurant’s landlord.
Also of note during that council meeting: the crowd situation in the Old Port is actually improving quite a bit due to factors other than police coverage.
Portland Police Lt. Janine Roberts said that since the Wharf Street dance club Headliners closed last year, the volume and “demographics” of the late-night crowds there represents “a big change” for the better.
“Wharf Street continues to improve greatly,” Mayor Cohen said at the Monday meeting.
The task force is expected to make formal recommendations regarding the Overlay Zone to the mayor this summer.
June 4, 2006
Toast of downtown
The national chain sandwich shop Quiznos now has a location in the heart of downtown Portland: Monument Square, in the space across from Longfellow Books long occupied by Victory Deli and last occupied by Binga’s Wingas. Binga’s flew that coop last year in favor of a spot in the West End because, as co-owner Al Altman told city councilors last winter, most office workers in the area split for the suburbs after 5 p.m. But unlike Binga’s, it’s assumed the fast food franchise isn’t banking on happy hour business.
May 23, 2006
The Congress Street Shuffle
A host of changes are taking place on downtown Congress Street, as some businesses close, others expand, and new ones give Portland’s Arts District a try.
Stichez, the hip men’s clothing store at 574 Congress St., is closing June 30 after six years. Owner Jonathan Gilbert, who’s been the proprietor for the past four years, said there’s “just not enough business” in the area to sustain the shop.
Stichez provided a creative alternative to the national chain clothing stores one finds at the mall, but Gilbert said, “I just don’t think Portland’s a big enough town” to support a local, independent men’s clothing shop.
Across the street, the gift shop Just Maine Made closed earlier this spring after many years. The store was owned by former Portland Mayor Dick Paulson, who took a job as the Portland School Department’s Director of Finance and Operations last year.
The shop closed after the City Council demanded Paulson cut its budget by $500,000. (Sorry, bad joke.) The upscale restaurant next door, 555, is said to be expanding into its neighbor’s space this summer.
A few doors down, a new Greek restaurant is rumored to be opening soon in the space next to Portland’s Downtown District’s new office. Our source said developer Tom Moulton was lobbied hard by another prospective tenant, U.S. Cellular, but preferred to lease the space below his Winslow Lofts condo project to a business deemed more compatible with the district’s growing residential atmosphere.
The beloved footwear store Terra Firma closed it doors earlier this year, but those doors will reopen the first Friday in July when its neighbor, Aucocisco Gallery, moves in. The art gallery will have at least twice as much room in its new digs.
Lastly, another source has told The Bollard that plans are being developed to build several stories of condos atop the space now occupied by an L.L. Bean Factory Store and an Olympia Sports location. The source said Portland architect Winton Scott showed him plans for the project in his office several weeks ago.
Scott, however, did not return calls seeking comment.
The philanthropic Libra Foundation bought the building for $250,000 in 1995, and secured tenants for it as part of its effort to help revitalize downtown Portland. It also built four apartments on the second floor. The foundation sold the property to an out-of-state trust (F.F.D. Trust) for just over $2 million in 2002, according to tax records.
The trust’s manager, Craig Foster, said at the time that he was talking with city officials about developing more housing on the site, according to the Portland Press Herald. Foster, who lives in Portland, did not return a call seeking comment.
A city official who spoke with Foster after The Bollard inquired about the alleged project said Foster doesn’t know why people are discussing additional housing there, because it was determined years ago that such development would be too costly to build.
Moulton said he was unaware of any plans to build condos across from Winslow Lofts, but he agreed the cost could be prohibitive. “It’s getting harder and harder for any urban development projects to go through,” he said, adding that global market pressures have caused building material prices to jump 20 percent since just last year.
Of the 17 units in his development, Moulton said all but three are already sold. Residents are expected to move in during late summer and early fall this year.
Cognac meets Kojak
Earlier this year, we reported in Gossip that Portland police were recommending a young man from Eastern Europe be denied a license to serve liquor in a café next door to police headquarters because of a recent drunk driving arrest. The city council ultimately decided to grant applicant Sergey Filiok the license to serve booze at Café Troika (formerly the Eatery Café), in part because the 24-year-old former exchange student expressed regret for the OUI incident and pledged he would be more responsible with alcohol in the future.
On May 12, Filiok was arrested for allegedly shoplifting a $27 bottle of cognac from the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue. Police said Filiok concealed the bottle in his coat and was leaving the store when he was stopped by in-house security.
Filiok called the incident “a misunderstanding, a ridiculous joke.” He said he was in the front foyer area where the shopping baskets and free newspapers are kept, talking on a cell phone and looking for his shopping companion, when store security arrived and accused him of trying to steal the bottle in his hand.
“They thought I was going to leave,” said Filiok, who added that though he looked out the door for his friend, he did not actually leave the store with the cognac.
He’ll get to tell that to the judge on June 9.
Fnord: A triple threat?
Graffiti tagger Eric White, a.k.a. Fnord, has managed to get arrested three times this month, and there’s still a week to go.
Police records indicate he was popped on May 6 for public drinking, May 16 for assault, and May 17 for “carrying a concealed weapon.” Each arrest was also accompanied by a bail violation charge, though The Bollard saw him on the evening of Friday, May 19, sitting on a bench in Tommy’s Park.
Portland police Lt. Vern Malloch said officers responded to the location of a 911 hang-up call on the 16th, and when a woman opened the door to the State Street apartment, cops saw White punch another man in the face.
The next night, officers responded to an assault call at 151 Middle Street (the retail building where Bull Moose Music and Videoport are located). The description of the alleged assailant led police to apprehend White in Monument Square, where he was found to be carrying “a utility knife” in his front pants pocket, Lt. Malloch said. The supposed assault victim did not want to press charges, he added.
White could not be reached for comment, though as we reported last week (see below), he’s lately been using cardboard and foam-board to make his nonsensical “tags,” which may explain the utility knife’s presence.
May 15, 2006
The game that dare not speak its name
After a nearly year-long hiatus, the comedy team of The Fuge and Country Rhodes (a.k.a. Bollard art directors Mich Ouellette and Sean Wilkinson) is back on stage, hosting a weekly show at Geno’s on Sunday nights in May.
The duo took over as hosts of the long-running comedy “Bingo” night at the Free Street Taverna several years ago, but that gig ended shortly before the bar was sold. Concern by a state gaming official that the use of a game of chance as a comedy prop constituted illegal gambling – despite the fact no money changes hands and the “game” is hardly played in the traditional sense – complicated efforts to revive the show, now called the Fuge & Rhodes Def Comedy Jam.
“I think we were both in a pretty dark place with comedy,” The Fuge said of their hiatus. “We just couldn’t get past diapers and hatred.”
“Drinking became a problem for both of us,” added Rhodes. “Threatening the crowd is never funny. Never.”
The Def Comedy Jam is expected to continue on a monthly basis beginning in June, and the pair have lined up a show in Brunswick early that month.
Infamous graffiti tagger Eric White, a.k.a. Fnord, is out of jail again after getting busted for shoplifting meat at a local supermarket. Shortly after his release, cardboard sculptures incorporating the “fnord” tag began appearing around town.
Seen on Congress Street last week, White confirmed that he’s shifted from using markers and paint to using cardboard to make his mark these days. He donated the example above to The Bollard.
May 8, 2006
Pavilion sold to banquet manager
The Pavilion, a posh nightclub and event hall on Middle Street, has been sold to an employee who’s been managing banquet functions at the facility for the past two years.
Lisa Oldakowski, of North Yarmouth, has purchased the business from James Albert, and will go before the Portland City Council later this month to apply for liquor and entertainment licenses.
Albert has not had an easy time operating The Pavilion and its associated nightclub, called 188 Bourbon Street, since he took it over in early 2005. Violence and other problems, especially during the Old Port club’s popular Wednesday night “Ladies Nights,” prompted police to recommend that the council yank Albert’s licenses last February. Instead, the council voted to limit entertainment at The Pavilion on Sunday through Wednesday nights [see “Council rejects cops’ call to yank Bourbon St. licenses.”]
Albert moved Ladies Night to Thursdays, and pledged to keep working with police to prevent problems. Since he did so, police records indicate that the club has not had any significant incidents. “We’ve had zero problems,” Oldakowski confirmed.
Oldakowski said she may continue the club’s Ladies Nights, but only after she discusses them with a private security firm and Portland police. In a letter to councilors, Oldakowski, 34, mentioned that she recently started a Salsa dancing night at the club on Saturdays – “[p]roper dress is required, as it is an upscale evening,” she noted.
Oldakowski also said that in addition to an in-house security staff and video cameras, she has hired a security firm to work the streets and sidewalks outside the club after closing time. Her license applications are expected to be considered at the council’s May 15 meeting.
May 1, 2006
Maine’s Pantry to leave Public Market
Another longtime tenant of the Portland Public Market is vacating the soon-to-be-sold facility. Maine’s Pantry is moving to the land side of Commercial Street after almost seven years at the market, said Elena Morrow-Spitzer.
Morrow-Spitzer co-owns the specialty foods business with her husband, Ted Spitzer, a former director of the market. Since the non-profit Libra Foundation announced it intends to sell the market as part of a mega-package of downtown real estate, several anchor tenants have fled and most, if not all, are looking for new digs. Libra is expected to announce a potential buyer in the coming weeks.
Spitzer and his wife were among a group of vendors who have advocated for the market’s survival. The “Save the Market” campaign seems to be floundering, however. Morrow-Spitzer said she and her husband are still involved in the effort, but “nothing’s happened” lately and the group has not met “for a while.”
The Funeral is dead; Kramer comes calling
Portland indie-rock super group The Funeral, formerly Extendo Ride, formerly Extendo Ride All Stars, etc., has changed its name again. The band is now going by the moniker Cult Maze, they announced at an April 29 gig at Geno’s. A full-length album is expected this summer, a taste of which can be heard on the group’s MySpace page. Beware: The tune “You Need to Know Ho…” (possibly “How,” cut short by MySpace’s text limit) is one catchy mo-fo.
In other notable local rock news, the much-lauded Portland group Harpswell Sound is readying to release their second full-length album on May 30. Tentatively titled Let’s go anyway, the edgy roots-rock foursome recorded it live over the course of a long weekend.
Much to their surprise, legendary indie rock musician and producer Kramer contacted the band and is mixing and mastering the new record. A founding member of Bongwater, Kramer has produced and performed with such heavy hitters as Half Japanese, Galaxie 500, Allen Ginsberg, Sonic Youth, Ween, Urge Overkill, White Zombie, King Missile, and Butthole Surfers, to name just a few.