City Councilors Karen Geraghty, left, and Will Gorham. (Geraghty photo/Chris Busby, Gorham photo/The Fuge)
Titties and Beer
City Councilors Karen Geraghty and Will Gorham are pushing to impose temporary bans on two types of businesses in downtown Portland: chain restaurants and bars. Both bans should be soundly rejected when the Council considers them next Monday night.
Geraghty’s order would impose a moratorium on the approval of any new franchise or “formula” restaurants in the city’s Old Port and Arts District (an imaginary area stretching along Congress Street from Longfellow Square to City Hall, with a couple side trips along the way). It would be effective through Nov. 19. The councilor intends to use that time to craft an ordinance aimed at permanently banning or restricting chain restaurants in those two areas of town. [See “Geraghty launches secret anti-Hooters offensive.”]
Gorham’s order would prevent approval of any new liquor or entertainment licenses not only in most of the Arts District, but up to and along Washington Avenue, nearly to the Interstate 295 on-ramp. This bar ban would be in effect through Nov. 20 – “unless extended,” as the language of this order reads – and is intended to give Gorham and a task force he chairs more time to work on a law permanently restricting drinking and dancing establishments downtown.
Geraghty’s order was introduced in response to the prospect a Hooters restaurant could open across from the Cumberland County Civic Center. The councilor is concerned about the potential impact Hooters and additional chain restaurant like it could have on the city’s culture and economy.
I share that concern. That’s why I started working with a group of fellow business owners, consumer activists, and (non-elected) city officials last spring to launch the Portland Buy Local campaign. (For more about this effort, see www.portlandbuylocal.org. Also note that this editorial is solely my own opinion, and is not intended to represent the views of the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance.)
This group – whose regular meetings in Room 209 of City Hall are always open to the public and the press – has made a point of keeping its message positive, promoting the benefits of supporting local, independent businesses, not opposing chains. Since early July, upwards of 150 business owners and countless consumers have responded to this approach and joined or supported the campaign. It’s a promising start, but it will take years of sustained effort to make a significant difference in the market.
Geraghty’s move to ban or restrict chains offers a tempting quick-fix to the ill effects posed by an influx of franchises, but it’s a shortcut to a dead end. Real progress is only possible by changing attitudes and buying habits, not the Portland City Code.
A ban or limit on chains implies that Portland’s homegrown enterprises can’t compete with franchises following a corporate “formula,” and thus need government intervention to give them a special advantage.
That’s just not true. Sure, franchises have some advantages over independents, like name recognition, but they also have disadvantages, both for the customer and the community at large. The more people come to understand this and make choices accordingly, the harder it becomes for chains to expand here.
Downtown Portland is already tough territory for franchises. Compared to most other cities, we have a high proportion of one-of-a-kind businesses – a characteristic many people who move here cite as a big attraction. The sight of a Hooters operating in the heart of downtown would further stoke the strong anti-chain sentiment among locals that’s shaped the current market.
Of course, the sight of Hooters stokes other sentiments, as well, and it’s possible the franchise could elicit more lust than disgust from Portland’s populace. I’m not immune to the chain’s charms, but frankly, I’d feel stupid being seen there. To me, hanging out at Hooters is tantamount to announcing to all present: “I’m a sexually retarded mouth-breather who hasn’t been this close to a real breast in months!” Others apparently don’t have this hang-up.
Like Councilor Gorham.
Gorham’s concern about Hooters is about beer taps, not boobs. “I don’t want to recreate another Wharf Street along Congress Street,” he told The Bollard last month.
To this end, Gorham and the Old Port Night Life Task Force he chairs are devising a plan that’s staggering both in its scope and stupidity. The group is seeking to take the ineffective – and likely illegal – taxation and oversight scheme known as the Old Port Overlay Zone and apply it to downtown Portland, minus the extra police coverage.
Just as councilors tripled the “seat tax” on bars in the Overlay Zone last spring, the task force – which doesn’t include any bar owners subject to that tax – is expected to recommend tripling the size of the Overlay Zone, effectively doubling the number of bars subject to the tax while, again, providing no additional cops to justify the charge.
Click here for a map of the current Overlay Zone (in red) and the expansion proposed as of the Sept. 12 task force meeting (in blue). Then consider that the task force is likely to recommend extending the blue zone even further east, to Washington Avenue, and perhaps further north and west, as well. The entire peninsula could be the new Old Port Overlay Zone by the time they’re through.
Gorham’s requesting a moratorium because his task force has spent months tinkering with this map and dickering over dozens of other details, and as a result, it has missed the original deadline Mayor Jim Cohen set for the group to deliver its recommendations.
The failure of Gorham’s group to get its work done on time is now the basis for a request that would screw over at least one entrepreneur who’s made real progress developing his business: Johnny Lomba, who hopes to reopen his music and arts venue, The Skinny, on the corner of Congress Street and Forest Avenue, where the bar Whit’s End once stood.
Lomba plans to apply for liquor and entertainment licenses next month, but his ability to run this much-anticipated arts business in the Arts District would be delayed and possibly nixed by Gorham’s proposal, which prohibits new licenses for bars and music venues located within 250 feet of similar establishments. (The Skinny would be within 250 feet of the restaurant 555’s new cocktail lounge and The White Heart bar and cocktail lounge.)
The language in Gorham’s order admits that the 250-foot rule “has not been addressed by any committee or group” – in other words, the task force pulled it out of its collective ass. I respectfully suggest this rule be returned to from whence it came.
Before the City Council even considers Gorham’s bar ban, it should, at the very least, exempt Lomba. In fairness, Hooters should be exempted, as well.
Councilors also might be interested in knowing how owners of existing bars and restaurants feel about the task force’s not-so-bright ideas. Barkeeps and restaurateurs potentially affected by the Overlay Zone’s expansion have been invited to a public hearing before the task force on Sept. 19 – the day after Gorham is requesting approval of his ban.
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.