Bullish on the Old Port

Doug Fuss (left) conferring with city attorney Gary Wood at a recent Old Port Nightlife Task Force meeting (task force chairman and City Councilor Will Gorham in foreground). (photo/Chris Busby)

A talk with Doug Fuss

By Peter Smith

Doug Fuss owns Bull Feeney’s, an Irish pub on Fore Street in Portland’s Old Port. Fuss has also taken a prominent role in the city’s efforts to address crime and other problems in the Old Port district. The Bollard spoke with him at his establishment in early July.

The Bollard: If you were going to describe Bull Feeney’s to someone who’d never been here, what would you tell them about this place? 
Fuss: Bull Feeney’s is a lot of things. First and foremost, Bull Feeney’s is an authentic Irish pub, and it was designed in the spirit of a real Portlander whose name is John Ford [the famous director]. His nickname was ‘Bull’ when he went to Portland High School, because he was a fullback on the football team that won the state championship, and he took his leather helmet and barreled through the line like a bull. 

His father was a saloonkeeper, and he had five saloons in Portland during [the] Prohibition era…. He came over from Spiddal, County Galway, in Ireland. It’s the story of an immigrant paving the way for his son. 

[Ford’s father’s] first pub was a grocer that fronted for a saloon during Prohibition. When you walk in, you’ll see a grocer-shop-style Irish bar, and that’s the front for our authentic Irish pub. 

I think we honor the history of Portland here, and we’re very active in the community. I started a John Ford Film Festival to increase awareness. John Ford is as much a part of Portland lore, as significant a person, as Longfellow. 

Besides being a bar owner, you’re involved in the Mayor’s Old Port Nightlife Task Force and the Nightlife Oversight Committee. 
I’m the chairman of the Nightlife Oversight Committee. It’s sort of a subcommittee of Portland’s Downtown District, but it’s a committee that was set up for bar owners and restaurateurs to look at nightlife and make sure nightlife is responsible. 

When was that set up? 
I don’t know exactly. I’ve been active in that body for three years. My understanding is that it was set up when the seat tax was first put into effect. 

Why do you have a seat tax? 
Well, I don’t have a seat tax. The city of Portland has a seat tax and they’re taxing Class A lounges – not just Class A lounges, but Class 11 restaurants that serve less than 50 percent food.

That’s just in the Old Port? 
It’s in a district that’s defined as [the Old Port] overlay district.

What’s the enforcement? Can the I.R.S. or Portland police come in and say, ‘Listen, we don’t think Bull Feeney’s is serving 50 percent food’? 
How does the city know? It’s on the license application…. I serve 50 percent food and I have a Class 11 restaurant [license]. That was the license I got originally, and we’ve adhered to it. 

OK, but they don’t look at the books, and they can’t? 
I can’t speak on that. 

So restaurant and bar owners pay a seat tax if they [make over 50 percent of their revenue] from alcohol. Where do the funds go? 
I can’t answer that. You’ll have to ask the city…. The intent for the seat tax… is to pay for extra police coverage in the Old Port. 

The overlay district has a couple of goals. That’s one of them, but it’s also for, in a concentrated bar area, dispersement. There’s a ‘100-foot rule’ that two overlay bars can’t exist within 100 feet of each other. What we’ve discovered in the special task force is that there’s a need to grandfather some of them. That’s why the Wharf Street bars exist the way they do. They issued the license before [the 100-foot rule], so they have to allow them to operate.

What attracted you to Portland? What makes this a place where 
you’d want to have a restaurant? 

You’re sitting in the middle of my dream. I consider myself a pub lover…. I remember talking to my parents about this when I was probably in my early 20s, but unlike some people that just dive right into it, I spent [time] building a marketing career… in Chicago and New York. I started looking for sites all over the Northeast, and this is a great site in a very competitive market. 

I think where I was naïve is how competitive the market is. But you also want to have a vibrant nightlife and you want to be a part of that. Part of a pub concept is that you’re part of the nightlife, and a responsible part of it. It’s the kind of place where people want to go to have a good time, and it’s safe and they listen to music and they sing songs with one other and they share stories and they talk to 
one another at the bar. 

One of the things that attracts me most about pubs is that we live in a very polarized world now, ‘red’ states and ‘blue’ states, Democrats and Republicans, and a pub is a great place to talk to one another…. A pub is a great forum for that. 

I think there should be more pubs…. Portland has a very active nightlife. It’s a safe nightlife. It has a good mix of retail, restaurants, bars. 

It actually hurts things when the press is saying that it’s dangerous, because then more dangerous people come. And it’s not dangerous…. It makes our job that much more difficult. 

Is that why the seat tax has [tripled], as a response to this perception that the Old Port is dangerous? 
The seat tax was $4.50 per seat and they raised it to $15. The idea that the City Council has about this is that they need a means to pay for added police coverage – necessary, added police coverage, especially during summer holidays and weekends, and especially from 11 [p.m.] to 2 a.m. The idea is that the ones that are causing [problems] need to pay for it. 

So the people responsible for that police protection are bar owners? 
That’s what the City Council is saying. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just telling you what the City Council is saying. 

If you had to say, what would the ideal scenario be? 
These things are pretty complicated. If you’re just talking broad-strokes safety issues in the Old Port, that’s why there’s a special task force, and I’d say go to the special task force and listen to the discussion, because it’s lively. We’re covering a lot of bases. 

If you’re asking my opinion about the seat tax, and should bars pay for the police coverage, my feeling is that – look at it this way: There’s a concept that the few shouldn’t have to pay for something that benefits the many. We have a case like that here.

A safe community makes a vibrant community, one where people want to visit and spend money, and that benefits everyone. The reality is that all these businesses down here pay taxes — they pay pretty big taxes — they’re entitled to policing, and one of the reasons they’re so valuable is because of all the business that’s going on down here, and some of that business is nightlife. But they’re entitled to policing to make sure that area is safe, and that’s why you don’t tax the few to benefit the many. 

Would you say that restaurants and hotels might be [subject to a special tax] in addition to bars? 
Now we’re getting into some political realities. What’s going on is that there’s a legal challenge to the nature of the seat tax in the overlay district. And the ones with the overlay licenses are fighting that, and I think that they should.

If [the legal challenge] doesn’t work… we have to deal with the political reality. Some of the work that the [Mayor’s] task force is doing is to make it fairer. It’s very clear that the City Council has an agenda that they feel very strongly that extra policing needs to be paid for by someone, and not by the people in other districts. That’s their point of view and they’ve politicized that point of view, and so the special task force says, ‘If we’re going to do that, let’s at least do that in a manner that’s fair.’ 

To do it in a manner that’s fair, we have to nail down how much money it’s costing. What is this extra policing? Because that number has been floating. It’s moved from $23,000 to $100,000 and back since we’ve been dealing with this issue. There are all sorts of ideas about what constitutes overtime, how many officers are needed… 

The other issues are the who, what and where of the overlay district. The ‘what’ is, ‘How do we define the boundaries of the overlay district?’ 

How are they defined now? 
The overlay district was [created] like 12 years ago. It was done at that point in time by some thoughtful people that were trying to accomplish goals, mostly dispersement [of Old Port bars] when it started out. Since that time, it’s changed. 

One of the reasons why I think the overlay concept doesn’t work is that it’s a moving target. Some of the dynamics that are in the overlay zone, the Old Port, are starting to emerge in other parts of town. Congress Street’s getting hot.

One of the things that happens when an area becomes hot is more and more bars open up. They’re the first ones to go into an area to make it exciting. Well, then, you’re going to have a dispersement issue. Don’t you want that dispersement issue all over, rather than in one area? 

There are some other areas in town that could use that: a couple of blocks in Back Bay you have three bars together that could use dispersement; you go to St. John Street and Congress Street and you’ve got some issues down there. 

The concept [of the overlay zone] — I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. It’s not making it safer. The political reality is the focus is on this area. 

The other problem is that [bar owners] go just outside of the area, just because they want to avoid the tax and the problem within the overlay area. Then you just move your problem somewhere else. 

The ‘who’ part of it is, ‘What type of license and how far apart?’ Currently, it’s defined by the 100-foot rule from the center of one property to the center of the next. On this block alone, Walter’s would be within 100 feet of the Alehouse. It’s a completely different atmosphere on Exchange Street than exists on Market Street. It should be [100 feet] door-to-door, and that was proposed at [a recent] special task force meeting. It’s the way customers come into a place. 

Are you 100 feet from the Alehouse? 
The center of my property is exactly 100 feet from the Alehouse. But if it were 100 feet door-to-door, I’m well more than 100 feet [away].

It’s also what type of license [should entail a seat tax]. Maybe it should be all forms – Class 11 restaurants, Class A lounges – regardless of how much food they serve, that benefit from the police coverage from 11 [p.m.] to 2 a.m. If we’re going to deal with it on that basis, that seems to make some sense to me. And I’ll tell you, I’ll pay a lot more money. But we clearly benefit from the fact that there are police in the Old Port. We have our share of bar customers. 

If a hotel is serving alcohol, should they be part of this? 
I think that if they’re a liquor licensee and they’re selling liquor after eleven o’clock, I think that makes some sense. It would include restaurants, it would include Bill’s Pizza, and Bill’s Pizza is one of the biggest problems of all. We just went through the calls for service, and they are a beer and wine licensee, and they’re serving [food] ’til 2 o’clock or later. They attract of lot of those people. 

Have problems increased or decreased over time in the Old Port? 
It’s improving…. The number of serious issues — fights, assaults, those sorts of things — appears to be going down over time. 

I do think that we, all the people that are working on these sorts of things, are improving the situation. The City Council has been doing a much better job lately of denying licenses. They took away the Pavilion’s special entertainment license for Wednesday, because there were some big problems with ‘Ladies Night’ last summer. It’s been effective. They denied Bottomz Up. They denied Headliners. 

There’s a lot of progress that’s been made there. The Industry volunteered to change its use to something that might improve that area, rather than be an attraction to the under-age and after-hours problem of Wharf Street. I think some of the changes on Wharf Street may solve some of the problems this summer alone. We’ll see what happens.

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