Briefs from November and December 2006

By Chris Busby


December 29, 2006 

I’ll have two Nicks and a Suslovic, to go
Nixed Dunkin’ space to be pizza parlor again

The Deering Center space where the city nixed plans for a Dunkin’ Donuts will be a family-owned, brick-oven pizza and sandwich shop – once again – come spring, said Joe Pomeo, owner of the Stevens Avenue property.

Pompeo owned the building between 1986 and 2000, during which time it morphed from a variety store to a brick-oven pizza parlor (Pompeo’s Brick Oven Pizzas), to a “quasi-restaurant,” he said. The building was a bakery until about a year and a half ago, and has remained vacant since.

Pompeo’s plans to lease the space to a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee set off a neighborhood revolt that lead to the passage of a sweeping new traffic-control ordinance which effectively bans fast food from the area. [See “Fast Food (Discrimi)Nation.”

“I feel discriminated against,” Pompeo told The Bollard early this month, after the measure passed by a 5-2 City Council vote. Pompeo had told councilors he’d been unable to find a “mom-and-pop” tenant for the space able to pay the rent he needed to collect from it. 

Now Pompeo himself will be the “pop.” 

Confirming his decision in an interview last night, he quipped, “Pompeo’s Brick Oven Pizzas – Back by City Council demand!” 

Asked what inspired him to reopen his old business, Pompeo said, “I looked at those ovens sitting there and I thought, ‘These are so beautiful! They’re ready to rock-and-roll again!'”

The new restaurant will offer much the same fare as the Pompeo’s of old, with the addition of bread baked on the premises. There’ll be beer and wine available for about 10 eat-in customers, and take-out food service. 

“Not a lot of delivery,” Pompeo stressed, conscious that high traffic volume to and from the eatery during peak hours could, in theory, doom his plans again, despite the homegrown nature of the enterprise. (The restaurant won’t open until 11 a.m., he noted, so it won’t add to morning traffic. His busiest time, 6:30 p.m., will be after the afternoon rush, so “hopefully we won’t fall inside the ‘hit zone.'”) 

The completely remodeled Pompeo’s could be open in March. 

Pompeo is considering naming some menu items after City Councilors. Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall, the two Greens, would be all-veggie sandwiches, he joked, only half-kidding. “Ed’s the meat, the substance,” he added, referring to City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who analyzed and criticized the traffic ordinance at length before he voted against it. (Donoghue cast the other “no” vote.) 

“[Mayor Nick] Mavodones will be half sausage, half meatball parm, because you can’t make up your mind,” Pompeo said with a laugh.

“The neighborhood is delighted,” said Naomi Merman, a nearby resident. Merman said she expects her neighbors will heartily support the reborn pizza parlor, even if it is owned by a man who just weeks ago was referring to himself sarcastically as “the villain of Deering Center.” 


December 21, 2006 

Toothaker resigns from school board
A day after vowing to remain on the school board following a drunken weekend arrest, Portland School Committee member Jason Toothaker has decided to resign. Though he got some support from colleagues, constituents and friends who urged him to remain in office, Toothaker said he ultimately decided quitting would be the best course of action both for himself and his fellow board members, for whom the incident has been a distraction.

In an interview with The Bollard Wednesday night, Toothaker said he decided to quit “not because of the pressure” he faced to resign, but “because I didn’t have the energy to deal with that pressure…. There’s only so much weight these shoulders can take, and I cracked today.”

Toothaker will hold a brief press conference announcing his decision on Jan. 3, when the school board holds its next meeting. A special election to fill his seat will be held in the coming months. Toothaker said he intends to stay in town and continue his studies at the University of Southern Maine.

The public reaction the 24-year-old received after news of his arrest for skipping out on a cab fare broke last Monday was about 30 percent supportive, 70 percent negative, and of that 70 percent, “I found a lot of it to be uninformed and ignorant and downright hateful,” said Toothaker.

Much of the worst of this came from people “with a specific tie to one School Committee member,” he said, but he declined to identify the colleague at this time. “To those parents sending me those really scathing e-mails, I feel bad for their kids,” he added.

Among his supporters, Toothaker specifically mentioned the kind reception he got from school administrative staff, especially Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor. Some fellow office holders, including former State Rep. John Eder and former Portland City Councilor and Mayor Peter O’Donnell, also reached out to offer him moral support, he said.

Adding to the pressure was the publication of news about his 2001 arrest, which also involved alcohol and an effort to flee police. “When my other arrest came in there, I felt like it was too much for me to deal with,” he said.

“I’ve gotten beaten up enough for this.”


December 18, 2006 

Icehouse must sue to survive
Having lost its license to sell food, The Icehouse will have to take the city to court to have its food license reinstated or it will lose its liquor license, as well, effectively closing the establishment next month.

As we reported last week, City Clerk Linda Cohen took the unusual, unprecedented step of denying the West End neighborhood bar’s licenses for food and amusements (in this case, a pool table) in response to allegations that Icehouse patrons have caused problems outside the bar. Earlier this fall, the city unsuccessfully attempted to pull the bar’s state liquor license, but without a license to sell food, The Icehouse can’t legally sell booze.

David Turesky, the attorney representing the tavern, has not responded to a request for comment since losing his appeal before Stephen Bither, the local attorney City Manager Joe Gray appointed to hear the bar’s appeal of Cohen’s decision. City attorney Gary Wood said he and Cohen have agreed to delay the effective date of the license denials until Jan. 12 to give Turesky and his clients the opportunity to appeal the decision in Cumberland County Superior Court – “which I’m sure they [will do],” Wood said. 

Turesky had argued that the city was taking a “back door” approach to denying the bar’s liquor license, because city administrators were embarrassed over their failed attempt to yank the license earlier this fall. 

“The Applicant may be correct in stating that the City is using its non-alcohol licensing process to shut down the Ice House,” Bither wrote in his Dec. 15 decision. “It may also be true that the City Administration, whether or not it was egg-faced, discovered an alternate route to liquor license suspension than the traditional Council denial-State appeal route.” But Bither concluded the action was authorized by the City Code and reasonable given the evidence of misbehavior presented to Cohen by neighbors and police. 


December 17, 2006 

Formula biz limits face two challenges
The limits on franchise and chain businesses enacted by the Portland City Council last month are now facing challenges from inside and outside the Council. [See “Hooters halted, Dunkin’ danglin’.”]

City Councilor Ed Suslovic has introduced an order to “sunset,” or eliminate, the limits at the end of next June. In the meantime, a task force would be formed to look into a host of issues related to business downtown, including parking, crime, and the mix of homegrown and formula businesses. That task force would be ordered to present its initial report by the end of April. 

Suslovic had earlier expressed support for a repeal of the formula business limits pending such a task force study, but it seems he was unable to get enough support among fellow councilors to introduce an order to that effect. His amendment is scheduled for a perfunctory first reading next Monday night, with public comment and a vote expected to take place at the Council’s first meeting of the new year.

Meanwhile, plans are taking shape to repeal the limits via a so-called “people’s veto.” This effort is being led by local real estate broker Tony Donovan of Fishman Realty Group. An organizational meeting has been scheduled for next Wednesday, Dec. 20, at 10 a.m., at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant on Commercial Street. 

Supporters of a repeal will have to gather at least 1,500 signatures from registered Portland voters over the next several months. Once the signatures are submitted to the city and verified, the City Council would have the opportunity to repeal the law itself. Should it refuse to do that, a special citywide vote would be held on the repeal proposal. 

In an e-mail announcing the Dec. 20 meeting, Donovan wrote, “Although Councilor Suslovic has a good idea to sunset it after a 6 month study, it may be that after 6 months, the study recommends even more restrictions. Time to nip this in the bud.”


December 13, 2006 

Show me the money: School Committee member "Zen" Ben Meiklejohn. (photo/courtesy Meiklejohn)

“Zen” Ben gets the chair
After having been denied the chairmanship of Portland School Committee by a party-line vote last month, “Zen” Ben Meiklejohn was chosen to chair the school board’s Finance Committee during a remarkably calm board caucus last week. In contrast to last month’s caucus, when tensions between registered Greens and Democrats on the supposedly non-partisan board forced the Finance Committee vote’s postponement, last week’s meeting was uneventful, said Meiklejohn, a Green Party leader. 

“Everybody on the board really wants to move beyond the perception of partisan division,” said Meiklejohn, the most senior member of the board by several years’ experience. “It’s a tough job, a tough position,” he said of the Finance Committee chairmanship. “The toughest thing we do is the budget. Maybe no one else wanted it.”

The vote, he added, was unanimous and conducted after minimal comment.

Previous board chairperson Ellen Alcorn had been nominated for the Finance chair by fellow Dems during last month’s caucus, but expressed no enthusiasm for the position. Current board chairman John Coyne has not yet released other committee assignments, Meiklejohn said earlier this week. 

The school board’s Finance Committee works with Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor to craft the district’s annual budget each late winter and spring. The subcommittee then works with the City Council’s Finance Committee before the school budget is presented to the Council for approval. For the past several years, councilors have demanded cuts to the school budget beyond what the board and super have recommended be spent. 


December 8, 2006 

Formula limits will likely be rescinded, studied
City Councilor Ed Suslovic intends to introduce an order to rescind the controversial limits on formula businesses enacted by the Council last month. His proposal will call for the formation of a group to study the impact of franchise business and other factors affecting the economic health of downtown. This group would then present the Council with recommendations that could include limiting chain business. 

This action would effectively reverse the law passed by the previous Council, which imposed sweeping restrictions and then called for a group to be formed to study the issue after-the-fact. That law passed by a 5-4 vote, but the Council now has two new members, Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue, who favor the study-first approach to this issue. In addition to Suslovic, Councilor Cheryl Leeman and Councilor Jim Cohen both supported this approach last month, and are likely to endorse the new order, giving its supporters the five votes necessary for passage.

Suslovic’s order would be given a first reading on Dec. 18, followed by a second reading and vote at the Council’s first meeting of 2007. 


December 5, 2006 

The logo for last year's New Year's Portland event. (image/courtesy City of Portland)

New Year’s Portland cancelled
Citing a “lack of community funding,” the volunteer board in charge of organizing the annual New Year’s Portland celebration has decided to cancel the event this year. 

In an e-mail announcing the decision, board member Brian Petrovek, president and CEO of the Portland Pirates minor league hockey franchise, is quoted saying the board needed “more time… for funding, marketing and presenting” the event, which it had hoped to expand to include nighttime attractions this year for the first time since 2002. Petrovek could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

Liz Darling, the city’s Marketing and Communications Manager, said the board “really struggled” to present the New Year’s event last year, as sponsorship and other help from businesses and arts groups “dwindled.” The event’s cancellation this year should be “kind of a wake-up call” said Darling, who hopes the community will rally behind efforts to revive it next year. The city provides some staff and technical support, but does not contribute public money toward New Year’s Portland.

The now defunct non-profit organization Maine Arts presented New Year’s Portland for many years, but discontinued its involvement after 2001, at which point a board of volunteers and city staff attempted to keep the tradition alive. They soon ran into trouble. The Grammy-winning country-and-western band Asleep at the Wheel cancelled their headlining appearance at Merrill Auditorium at the last minute, under dubious circumstances. 

“We lost a lot of money that year,” Darling told former Bollard columnist and Maine Arts promoter Richard Lawlor, who detailed the new board’s struggles in two columns for this publication last year. After that experience, the board focused its efforts on presenting free, daytime, family-centric events. 

Maine Arts had organized performances and other entertainment during the evening hours, and sold tickets for those events, which culminated in a free downtown fireworks display. The new non-profit board, New Year’s Portland Inc., effectively reversed that, offering free daytime activities and an indoor fireworks display for fans attending the Pirates’ nighttime game. Advance tickets to this year’s New Year’s Eve game and fireworks show are $5.

“I think it’s a real shame Portland can’t continue to have an event like this,” said Nick Bloom, the former head of Maine Arts, who now runs his own for-profit company, Bloom Arts and Events. “An event like this does a great deal for [Portland’s] stature nationwide.” Bloom, who was not contacted by the new board this year, said people traveled from New York and other states to attend Portland’s past New Year’s celebrations.

Bloom said it typically cost about $100,000 to put on the event when Maine Arts was in charge. Darling said the new board’s “perfect world” budget would have been between $50,000 and $60,000 – the big difference from the Maine Arts years’ budgets being the lack of a big-name entertainer to pay. 

Even without a big-name act, Darling said the event had grown in recent years, attracting thousands of people to downtown Portland. She said Petrovek “picked up the ball” and worked hard to pull the event together this fall, but the private sector support didn’t materialize. 


November 28, 2006

The Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, with City Hall in the background. (photo/Chris Busby)
The Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, with City Hall in the background. (photo/Chris Busby)

Church to become state?
Bayside developer Ross Furman has bought the Chestnut Street Church behind City Hall in hopes of swapping the historic Methodist house of worship with the city for land in Bayside that abuts other property he owns. Furman figures the city could use the property for municipal offices, connected to City Hall via a catwalk, but city officials are cool to the idea, and no deal appears imminent.

“Nobody wants to make a decision,” said Furman, who founded Skillful Vending in Bayside and has since gone on to purchase and develop several properties in the neighborhood. Furman plans to present the idea directly to City Councilors in the coming days.

Portland Planning and Development Department Director Lee Urban confirmed Furman’s interest in making such a deal, but said the city is not in a position to acquire the church property at present. However, the city may be interested in acquiring a portion of Furman-owned land in Bayside should Somerset Street be extended west as part of larger redevelopment plans in the area.

Furman has expressed interest in city-owned parcels occupied by public works facilities, like the sand and salt shed in Bayside. The city has discussed relocating those facilities, but no move is expected anytime soon.

Furman purchased the church from developer Richard Berman in September. Berman is constructing several dozen loft-style condominiums on what was formerly the church parking lot. The Methodist congregation that has occupied the Gothic Revival church since the late 1700s sold the property to Berman a year ago (city tax documents list the selling price at $300,000, slightly below its assessed value), citing maintenance costs and other inefficiencies. Berman was reported to have considered converting the church into offices, and had spoken of trying to attract another congregation to the building.


November 14, 2006 

The sign in the window of 653 Congress Street. (photo/The Fuge)
The sign in the window of 653 Congress Street. (photo/The Fuge)

Billy’s is back, Charlie’s is gone
The prayers of the Portland pig-faithful have been answered. Uncle Billy’s barbeque joint is coming back to town.

Uncle Billy’s achieved notoriety (for its barbeque and otherwise) in South Portland during the ’80s before moving across the bay. Chef Jonathan St. Laurent revived the restaurant, named after his uncle, ten years ago on Newbury Street, at the foot of Munjoy Hill. That location was heavily damaged by fire in 2002, prompting a move to Yarmouth.

That move proved unfortuitous, as St. Laurent soon had to butt heads with town officials over seating capacity regulations. Last year, he tried to switch from his Southern barbeque specialties to Portuguese-style flavors, but soon switched back. By last spring, he was out.

The new location, at 653 Congress St., was last occupied by the African eatery Nile. Plans call for Uncle Billy’s Resto-Bar to open in early December. The City Council is expected to approve their liquor license application on Nov. 20. 

"Pulled Hamstring," by Meghan Busby (2004; pen, crayon and Uncle Billy's napkin; private collection).
"Pulled Hamstring," by Meghan Busby (2004; pen, crayon and Uncle Billy's napkin; private collection).

In addition to the food, Uncle Billy’s was locally famous for its selection of cheap beers, its honky-tonk jukebox, the pig-themed napkin-art puns customers created, and other inspired décor. Country-blues crooner Hollerin’ Man had a mostly regular gig at the Newbury Street location, and when he wasn’t performing, St. Laurent would repeatedly play an excruciating Barry Manilow song he left in the jukebox to torture customers into playing something else. 

While downtown Portland is gaining a restaurant and bar, the Old Port has lost one. Right Proper Charlie’s, the supposedly “upscale” pub long known as the Wharf Street dance club Industry, is finished after just weeks of operation. Building owner Steve Baumann confirmed the closure and said he’s seeking a new tenant. 

Industry owner Brian Hanson took a financial risk by converting his rowdy, but profitable, dance club into a supposedly more sedate, pub-style restaurant, he and his lawyer told City Councilors last January. Hanson also said the pub would be open in February. 

And speaking of Old Port bars that haven’t materialized, seems the subterranean space at the corner of Fore and Exchange Streets won’t be a bar and dance club called Legends after all. Going on nine months since the Council granted an ex-Coastie a liquor license for the Joe Soley-owned space, there’s no sign, and no sign of life, at the former home of Leo’s, The Basement, Players, etc. 


November 7, 2006

The front entrance of the YMCA's High Street housing and recreation facility. (photo/Chris Busby)
The YMCA's short-term lodging facility on High Street. (photo/Chris Busby)

YMCA eviction rules upheld
The Portland City Council voted last night not to subject the YMCA to the same rules regarding tenant evictions applied to other short-term lodging houses.

As The Bollard reported last summer, YMCA officials, most prominently board president and City Council hopeful Cyrus Hagge, argued the rule change would force the Y to rent its 86 residential units on High Street by the month, rather than on a weekly, basis, and to require security deposits. Hagge predicted this would cause more homelessness.

A slim majority of Councilors agreed. The Portland Press Herald reported the vote was 5-4, with Councilors Nick Mavodones, Donna Carr, Cheryl Leeman and Ed Suslovic, as well as Mayor Jim Cohen, comprising the majority. 

The daily also noted that some housing advocates protested outside City Hall prior to last night’s meeting. Advocates have argued that tenants of short-term, single-room-occupancy units should have the same legal protections other renters have.