Briefs from September and October 2006
By Chris Busby
October 20, 2006
The Icehouse stands
The Icehouse Tavern, a family-owned neighborhood bar in Portland’s West End, has been given a stay of execution.
Last August, the City Council voted unanimously not to renew the bar’s liquor license. Though Portland police could not cite any liquor violations on the premises and had praised the bar last spring for its proactive efforts to address problems, councilors voted in response to accounts from neighbors who said Icehouse patrons have harassed them and disturbed the peace. [See “City Council denies Icehouse license.”]
The bar remained open while it appealed the city’s decision to state liquor authorities. A hearing was scheduled on Oct. 19, but never took place. Icehouse attorney Gary Prolman said a representative of the state Attorney General’s Office told city attorney Gary Wood the Council did not have the authority to pull the bar’s license in August, because state officials had already renewed the Icehouse’s license – based on documents provided by the city – earlier that summer.
The Council can take no action on the bar’s license until it is up for its annual renewal next June.
Rockin’ The Dome
With the future of the State Theatre still in limbo, a new concert venue has emerged off the peninsula. Known as “The Dome,” the new rock-spot is in the Warren Avenue complex that’s also home to Joker’s, Turf’s Sports Grill and Portland Indoor Sports, as well as The Gold Room, a new incarnation of The Dome that hosts comedy and rock-cover acts.
Live Nation, a concert production company associated with Clear Channel, has begun booking acts at The Dome, beginning with a Nov. 24 show by pop-rockers Goo Goo Dolls. Live Nation concert promoter Lauren Wayne also confirmed that The Australian Pink Floyd Show, a tribute act, is booked at The Dome on Dec. 16. More concerts may follow based on the success of these two gigs.
Live Nation previously promoted shows at the State Theatre, and continues to bring music to the Cumberland County Civic Center. The Civic Center has a concert capacity of 9,000; The Dome can hold about 3,000 people. The State Theatre’s capacity was about 1,500.
October 13, 2006
Proposed formula-restaurant limits expanded to stores
The Portland City Council may soon consider an ordinance limiting the number of chain, or “formula” restaurants and retail stores in most of the city’s downtown, the Old Port, and parts of neighborhoods like Bayside. The proposal, recently drafted at the behest of Councilor Karen Geraghty, would cap the number of formula restaurants in areas of town zoned for business uses at 10; the total number of “formula” retail stores (like The Gap, CVS, or Borders) would also be limited to 10. Formula restaurants or shops already operating in the zones would be allowed to stay open.
At the Oct. 11 meeting of the Council’s Community Development Committee (CDC), Geraghty said she’d taken an informal count of formula businesses in these zones, and identified nearly 30. There’s been “an incredible proliferation” of formula businesses in Portland over the past five years, Geraghty said, adding that in 2001 there were half as many corporate chains and franchise outlets in town as there are now.
About 10 people spoke in favor of the limits, including several people this reporter recognized as members of a secretive group Geraghty formed last month to oppose the opening of a Hooters restaurant downtown. Though some members of this group said Hooters was merely the catalyst for the anti-formula ordinance, not its focus, the conversation quickly turned into a debate over the merits of the restaurant.
Michael Harris, owner of The Stadium, plans to bring Hooters into the space his sports bar occupies between Congress and Free streets. He said most members of the public feel differently about the restaurant than the speakers at the meeting, and he defended Hooters’ hiring practices. The chain eatery only hires women to work as wait staff, though men can work in other capacities.
“That’s not right,” said Councilor Jim Cloutier, chairman of the CDC, who suggested Maine’s law against discriminatory hiring practices could lead to a successful court challenge should Hooters open here. (Maine is one of only a handful of states that do not yet have a Hooters.)
Harris, however, challenged Cloutier to name a sports bar in Portland that employs men as wait staff, and the councilor admitted he could not. These sports bars likely have an informal hiring policy that maintains an all-female wait staff, but “they’re just not admitting it,” Cloutier conceded.
Geraghty’s ordinance will likely be discussed at the CDC one more time before the full Council considers it next month.
Disco Willy sees the light
City Councilor Will Gorham is having second thoughts about a scheme to expand the so-called Old Port Overlay Zone into downtown Portland and require more bars to pay a special “seat tax” to help cover police overtime costs.
Gorham, a former bar and disco owner who chairs a special task force charged with improving safety in the Old Port, said in an interview yesterday that the current Overlay system is “broken.”
“We ought to get rid of it,” he said. “It’s unfair to a lot of business people down there.”
Last spring, councilors voted to triple the “seat tax,” a special fee assessed to Old Port bar and restaurant owners who make more than half their revenue from alcohol sales. The bar owners banded together in response to the fee hike and threatened litigation.
Gorham, who is running for reelection this fall, suggested the overtime costs could be covered by increasing annual fees for liquor and food service licenses, or making the expense part of the city’s general budget. The tax increase necessary to cover the estimated $61,000 in overtime costs would add less than a penny to the property tax rate, Gorham noted.
The task force is expected to make formal recommendations to the City Council later this month. A bar owner following the process suggested the pending lawsuit could be dropped if the city scraps the decade-old Overlay system.
September 27, 2006
If you can’t beat ’em…
The lead proponent of initiating a “people’s veto” to overturn new zoning for the Maine State Pier and eastern waterfront is now considering submitting a proposal to help develop the site himself.
Former Portland Planning Board member John Anton said a people’s veto initiative would be “premature” at this point, though he held out the possibility a citywide referendum effort could be organized in response to a specific development proposal, should the city chose to pursue a proposal that Anton and likeminded critics consider inappropriate for the area. For example, a proposal that includes a waterfront hotel would likely inspire a veto effort.
Earlier this month, the City Council voted to amend zoning for the eastern waterfront in ways that allow more non-marine uses on and around the Maine State Pier. An earlier version of the new zoning would have allowed a hotel to be built on the pier, but after several councilors expressed opposition to that possibility, the zoning was changed to make the pier off-limits to hotel development. Instead, the zoning would allow a hotel to be built on the water-side of Commercial Street, east of India Street.
City officials are now crafting a request for proposals to develop the pier and adjacent waterfront, and several private developers have already expressed interest in submitting plans. Anton is now among them.
Anton said he doesn’t have a specific proposal in mind, but is working to organize a team of developers to put together a proposal “that truly embraces the principles in the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan” – a city planning document that sets broad goals and standards for the area’s development.
Elements of Anton’s plan could include transportation infrastructure and retail space specifically dedicated to locally owned, independent businesses – “as opposed to a Legal Seafood [franchise restaurant],” he said. Anton also said he’d like the development to contribute to the “creative economy,” and added that a live music venue could be part of the plan.
Anton, a resident of the West End, is president of the Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, a private, non-profit financial organization that helps fund affordable housing developments. He said the Fund may be part of a pier proposal he helps put together, but it’s too soon to commit the organization to this effort.
September 12, 2006
New skate park site on fast track to approval
City parks and planning officials, working closely with local youth, have found a promising location for a new skate park to replace the current park on Marginal Way. The site presented to city councilors at a workshop on Sept. 11 is Dougherty Field, a public recreational area behind West School, off St. James Street in Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood.
The current park – named Forum Park after Forum Financial Services, the company that contributed half the money toward its construction several years ago – is on a parcel of city-owned land scheduled to be turned over to the state Department of Transportation next September as part of a city-state land swap in Bayside related to plans for future rail service. If approved by councilors in the coming months, the new park would be open by then.
As The Bollard reported last fall, Dougherty Field was considered an unworkable option earlier in the process due to neighborhood concerns about the park’s impact and plans to build another baseball field there. City Councilor Donna Carr, whose district includes the field, made it clear Monday night that neighbors still have a host of worries: from noise to parking to the possibility homeless people could seek shelter inside the skate park’s ramps.
Most of those concerns were addressed by city Parks and Recreation Director Denise Clavette. For example, the new ramps would be solid concrete. The nearest residence is 400 feet – and two streets – away from the site, which itself is located about 400 feet from an Interstate 295 exit.
As for plans for a ballfield, new parks and recreation projects are ostensibly on hold pending the results of a city-funded survey that asks residents what amenities they use and want. Councilor Ed Suslovic mentioned this Monday night, and asked whether skate park approval should be put on hold pending the study’s completion in January.
City Manager Joe Gray responded by saying the city had “informally” promised skate-park users it would build a new park when the deal to swap the current site was arranged. A delay stretching into next year would likely mean the park would not be funded or built until 2008.
Most councilors seemed to give the new site favorable consideration, though its cost could become an issue. Documents Clavette provided showed an estimated total cost for the 20,000-square-foot project between $105,000 and $155,000. Forum Park, a considerably smaller facility, cost about $15,000 to construct.
Public funding for the park would come from the city’s Capital Improvement Budget – a budget funded by borrowing and capped at $10 million per year. That budget is also used for things like school, sewer and road improvements. However, as with Forum Park, private funding sources are expected to cover a significant portion of the final bill.
September 8, 2006
From The Alehouse to the jailhouse
Portland nightclub owners can consider this a warning: Disregard fire safety laws at your venue and you face more than a fine – you will be thrown in jail.
That’s the hard lesson learned by A.J. Riseman, wife of Alehouse owner Russ Riseman, who reports to the Cumberland County Jail tonight for a 24-hour sentence.
A.J. Riseman, 29, was behind the bar when fire inspectors made a surprise visit to the Market Street rock club one night earlier this year. The inspectors found an empty bass drum case sitting in front of an exit door, but otherwise the club was in compliance, Riseman said.
Prosecutor Michael Madigan of the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office sought to jail Riseman for three days and impose a $230 fine, but the district court judge who heard the case decided to impose no fine and ordered Riseman to spend only one day behind bars, Riseman said.
Riseman said she has never been jailed before – “I haven’t had a speeding ticket in 10 years,” she said today, just hours before she is due to report for her sentence. “It sucks, but I can kind of understand because there are fire safety laws in place to keep people safe,” she continued. “Hopefully all the other bars that have live music realize they need to keep exits clear.”
The Alehouse closed last month following a protracted dispute with its landlord over noise and unrelated fire safety issues involving sprinkler system upgrades. Today would have marked the club’s seventh anniversary. Russ Riseman has said he hopes to open another venue in Portland outside the Old Port. A.J. Riseman declined to comment on the progress of their search.
“People should take notice” of Riseman’s jailing, said City Councilor Will Gorham, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee and a task force appointed by the mayor to address safety issues in the Old Port. State and local fire-safety officials have been “stepping up inspections” in the last year, Gorham noted, partly in response to the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island three years ago.