Briefs from January and February 2007
By Chris Busby
February 23, 2007
L/A: It’s happening here
Portland City Manager Joe Gray has announced the hiring of his counterpart, Auburn City Manager Pat Finnigan, to become our next assistant city manager. Finnigan will begin her new job June 4, at a starting salary of $84,000.
Finnigan replaces Larry Mead, who left last November to become the town manager in Kennebunkport. She’s held the top job in Auburn for 12 years, and had experience previous to that advocating on behalf of cities for the Maine Municipal Association. One of her top tasks in Portland will be to push for the city’s interests among state and federal officials.
A press release yesterday announcing the move also said Finnigan will be overseeing major development projects and the city’s communications program, in addition to working on regionalization of public services and “public/private partnerships.” (The communications duties seem especially needed – her last name was spelled wrong throughout the city-issued press release announcing her hiring.)
At a time when top Portland city officials are jumping ship in droves, it’s notable that over 80 people applied for this position. The city held two rounds of interviews before picking Finnigan, who asked to remain in her Auburn post through that city’s budget season this spring.
Portland’s other assistant city manager is Anita LaChance.
February 9, 2007
Wrist-slap for Manning
Old Port bar owner Tom Manning pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct yesterday in an appearance before Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Robert Crowley. Prosecutors dropped a second charge against Manning that stemmed from allegations by Portland police that he threw punches at them last July when they intervened to break up a fight between the intoxicated bar owner and a former employee.
Crowley sentenced Manning to perform 30 hours of community service in the next six months and pay $50 per month during this period to defray court supervision costs. If Manning stays out of trouble for an additional six months after this period, the disorderly conduct charge will be dismissed.
Manning owns several bars and restaurants in the Old Port, including The Crazy Green Iguana, a rowdy college bar on Wharf Street; The Mercury, a classy cocktail lounge on Fore Street; and the complex of clubs at the corner of Fore and Union streets that includes Digger’s Sports Pub, Plush (a lounge upstairs from Digger’s) and the dance club Liquid Blue.
Last December, the Portland City Council granted Manning a fifth liquor and entertainment license to open Cake, an “upscale” restaurant and nightclub on Wharf Street located in the space previously occupied by the raucous dance club The Industry.
Councilors wary of Manning’s checkered past and then-pending charges seemed mollified by his assurances that Cake would not be yet another rowdy dance club, but rather a high-class restaurant with jazz and acoustic performances catering to a mature, monied clientele. The establishment opened about a month ago.
In print advertisements for Cake, there’s no mention of any jazz or acoustic music. On Wednesdays, Cake hosts a “Ladies Night” with DJ Tonik. On Thursdays, it’s live funk with the band Chronic Funk. Fridays are “80s Retro” dance nights with DJ Myron, and on Saturdays, it’s the “Sexy 70’s Saturday Disco Explosion!”
February 6, 2007
Formula biz limits scheduled for repeal
The Portland City Council is expected to repeal the controversial law limiting so-called “formula” businesses on parts of the peninsula at its next meeting, on Feb. 21. A majority of at least five councilors generally support suspending the ordinance while the issue is studied by a special task force. In addition to new councilors Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall, Cheryl Leeman, Jim Cohen and Ed Suslovic support the idea of taking the law off the books pending further analysis of the effect chain and franchise businesses have on the city’s economic health.
As The Bollard reported last December, the election of Donoghue and Marshall – who represent the on-peninsula districts directly affected by the law – created the majority necessary to repeal it. However, it’s taken time for this majority to agree on the best way forward.
A proposal by Councilor Suslovic would have caused the law to end, or “sunset,” this summer, pending the work of a task force charged with examining a host of issues affecting business downtown, including chain stores, parking, crime and the future of the Cumberland County Civic Center. Donoghue and Marshall felt that charge was too broad, and have instead introduced an order to repeal the limits immediately and set up a Business Diversity Task Force to specifically study the impact of formula businesses citywide.
Both Suslovic’s order and the order sponsored by Donoghue and Marshall will be discussed at the Feb. 21 meeting, but since it’s clear Suslovic’s proposal lacks majority support, the alternative proposal is expected to prevail.
Meanwhile, the group of local businesspeople opposed to the limits has continued to organize and voice its concerns about the law. Called Portland Works, the group now has an official spokesperson, Mark Robinson, and a Web site, www.portlandworks.org.
In a recent press release denouncing “Council inaction” on the law, Robinson wrote, “The urge to repeal is correct. Every day that goes by with the ordinance in place helps cement the city’s anti-business reputation across the region.” The group has threatened to collect signatures to force a citywide vote on the law, but that effort would be made unnecessary by a Council vote to repeal the limits later this month.
Toothaker’s seat to be filled this summer
The seat on the Portland School Committee vacated by Jason Toothaker will be filled by a special election to be held on June 12. The Portland City Council voted unanimously last night to hold the vote, even though the seat will be up for grabs again less than five months after it’s filled.
The post represents District 3, which includes the Stroudwater, Rosemont and Libbytown neighborhoods, and the area around the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. Several potential candidates have already emerged, including Julia Finn, who lost the District 3 race to Toothaker two years ago by a single vote, neighborhood activist Carol Schiller, and Peter Eglinton, a parent of students at the Nathan Clifford Elementary School in the district.
The future of the 100-year-old Clifford school is in doubt, as city and school officials continue to study options to close and consolidate some of Portland’s elementary schools. That makes holding the special election all the more important, said several councilors.
In addition to the short tenure of the position, the potential $15,000 cost of holding the district-wide vote gave some officials and potential candidates pause. School board members considered whether there will be another matter requiring a citywide vote this summer before voting to request the special election last month.
It now appears there will be no need to hold a citywide vote this summer to replace at-large Councilor Jill Duson or determine the fate of the formula business ordinance. However, it’s likely voters citywide will go to the polls June 12 to consider an amendment to a previously approved bond issue funding renovations to the Portland Public Library’s main branch in Monument Square (see Briefs item below).
Duson is no longer in line for a state commissionership that could have compelled her to relinquish her Council seat.
Duson said she currently intends to run for a third Council term this November, though her name is now surfacing as a potential candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by Tom Allen, should Allen decide to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins next year. Former state senator Mike Brennan, of Portland, has already announced his interest in Allen’s seat should the congressman challenge Collins, and State Sen. Ethan Strimling, also of Portland, is among several others deemed likely contenders if that race develops. Allen, a Democrat, has not yet announced whether he will challenge Collins, a Republican, in 2008.
“Meet Me at The Market – Bring $1 Million”
It seems most likely that Portland voters will go to the polls this June to decide whether the Portland Public Library should move its main branch into the Portland Public Market building.
Former Mayor Nathan Smith and library trustees presented a plan to city councilors last night detailing the steps necessary for the library to make the move. Most councilors were enthusiastic about the proposal, and seem inclined to let voters decide whether the city should borrow an additional $1 million to help cover the additional cost of the project.
In 2004, Portland voters approved a $4 million bond intended to cover about half the cost of major renovations to the existing library building. But as The Bollard reported in December 2005, the library’s campaign to raise the rest of the cash necessary for the project from private sources has fallen far short of its goal.
At the time, renovations to the existing building, built in 1979, were expected to cost $8.5 million. However, since then, construction costs have soared while the library’s private fundraising campaign has remained grounded. The most recent estimate provided by library officials indicates only about $2.3 million has been raised from private sources so far.
The cost of moving into the former market building, including renovations to add space on the second floor, is estimated at about $13 million. Smith told his former colleagues that cost would be substantially offset by the sale of the Monument Square branch. The city-owned building could fetch as much as $3.4 million, the trustees estimate, though a professional appraisal is not yet complete.
As currently envisioned, the library would purchase the market for $2.75 million from Guggenheim Real Estate LLC, the real estate investment company that bought it last year from the Libra Foundation as part of a mega-package of downtown properties. Smith said the library has signed a letter of intent to purchase the building, and will need to make a deposit of $250,000 on March 6, the day after the City Council is expected to vote on holding a special election for the amended bond order.That deposit would be refunded if voters reject borrowing additional public funds, Smith added.
Library officials hope the prospect of moving into the market will inspire private donors to pony up the cash necessary to make the new plan a reality. “Donors I speak to come alive when this idea is mentioned,” Smith told councilors last night. The market proposal will make the private fundraising campaign “notably easier,” he said.
The library would still occupy the basement of the Monument Square branch if the new plan goes forward; that space would be used for book storage and continued operation of the Rines Auditorium.
YWCA’s Council support falls short
At least three city councilors support the Greater Portland YWCA’s request to have its Spring Street housing and recreation facility exempted from a city law intended to maintain Portland’s housing stock. However, the beleaguered non-profit will almost certainly fail to get the five-vote majority necessary to be granted an exemption if the matter comes back before the Council later this month.
Councilors Ed Suslovic, Cheryl Leeman and Donna Carr voted in favor of granting the exemption last night. Opposed were Jill Duson, Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall. Mayor Nick Mavodones was absent from last night’s meeting, as was Councilor Jim Cloutier, and Councilor Jim Cohen recused himself from the vote given his law firm’s work on behalf of the Y.
Because the exemption order failed to get five votes either for or against it, it can be brought back before the Council on Feb. 21. But even if Mavodones supports it, Cloutier said today that he “can’t imagine” endorsing the same exemption request councilors considered last month, and prospects for a new deal are dimming.
At that meeting in January, the matter was referred to the three-member Housing Committee, chaired by Duson. Duson and fellow committee members Cloutier and Donoghue voted against granting the Y an exemption. The Y argues its Spring Street property should be considered a “project of special merit” worthy of exemption under the ordinance, but Housing Committee members questioned whether there is even a project to consider until the building is sold.
Committee members directed city staff to try to work out a compromise deal with Y officials and the Maine State Housing Authority, which holds a deed covenant on the property that requires it to offer housing to women in need until 2030. Those talks have not produced results, and in an op-ed piece published in thePortland Press Herald on Jan. 30, two YWCA board members indicated the non-profit will likely file for bankruptcy.
“As we spend thousands each week to heat and light a vacant building, our options continue to dwindle,” wrote Catharine Hartnett and Kim Laramy. “In the event an exception is not provided without prolonged negotiating that serves the interests of all but the YWCA, our board will maintain its fiduciary responsibility to the financial status of the organization and declare bankruptcy.”
Without an exemption, a buyer who acquires the property and removes its 50-plus rooming units would be required to either help develop more housing elsewhere or pay into a city fund for affordable housing construction. The latter option could cost a developer upwards of $1 million, a prospect that decreases the building’s resale value. Y officials are concerned that with the housing replacement requirement in place, they will be unable to realize $2.5 million from the building’s sale and thus settle outstanding debts to employees, contractors, the state and others with claims against the organization.
Leeman said today that she voted in support of the exemption out of “compassion” for employees and small businesses that may not be paid if the building isn’t sold for at least $2.5 million. It’s hard to predict how the Y’s assets would be divided during bankruptcy proceedings, but Cloutier said he’s not overly concerned the outcome would be worse than under other options.
January 24, 2007
City development director resigns
Just days after The Bollard broke news of allegations that top economic development staff at City Hall were threatened with dismissal over their views on the controversial ordinance limiting formula businesses, one of those top staffers has resigned.
Jack Lufkin, director of the city’s Economic Development Division, is leaving next month after over seven years in city government. He is taking a job as senior business officer with Gorham Savings Bank.
Asked if political pressure to keep mum about the ordinance compelled him to leave, Lufkin said, “No, any single issue would not be cause for me to move on.” The position with Gorham Savings Bank was “simply a great opportunity,” he said.
Lufkin said he made his decision to resign on Jan. 22. Our story was published Jan. 18.
Not everyone is convinced the pressure Lufkin and others felt over the formula business debate is a minor factor in his departure.
“It’s too bad he’s being driven out,” said former City Councilor Will Gorham, one of several city officials who say economic development and planning staff were pressured to suppress their concerns about the business limits.
Lufkin’s departure is “further evidence people have tried to muzzle him about this formula business ordinance,” said Gorham. “He cannot do the job as he sees it should be done, so he’s being driven out of [city government].”
“People will say it’s just a coincidence” that Lufkin is leaving on the heels of the formula business controversy, Gorham added. “It isn’t just a coincidence…. Anyone who tries to deny it is just pulling the wool over people’s eyes.”
January 12, 2007
YWCA exemption request denied
The Portland City Council’s three-member Housing Committee unanimously rejected a request by the Greater Portland YWCA to have its Spring Street property exempted from the city’s housing replacement ordinance.
The Y had sought an exemption as a “project of special merit,” which would absolve the buyer of the property from any responsibility to pay for housing units converted to other uses or demolished as part of its redevelopment. At the Jan. 9 meeting, committee members said the Y did not yet have a “project” to be considered.
Committee member Jim Cloutier directed city staff to work with the Y’s board and representatives of the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) in an attempt to craft a compromise plan that could result in a project worthy of an exemption. In addition to the city’s law, the MSHA has a covenant on the property that requires it to continue to provide housing for women in need until 2030.
At a full Council meeting earlier this month, MSHA official Peter Merrill cautioned councilors not to assume the state housing agency had lifted its covenant or will do so even if it receives $200,000 from the property’s sale, as the Y’s board has pledged to provide.
Further thickening this impasse are additional public revelations about the building’s deteriorating condition. In addition to the presence of asbestos, councilors learned that the YWCA’s pool cannot be drained for fear of creating structural problems. The Y’s attorney, Roger Clement, said the building is difficult and costly to maintain.
The Y hopes to realize at least $2.5 million from the sale in order to repay creditors and avoid bankruptcy. It’s unclear how the organization will proceed now that its exemption request has been dismissed and its efforts to have MSHA’s covenant lifted continue to be rebuffed. Neither Clement nor board president Margaret Cleveland responded to requests for comment this week.
January 11, 2007
Florence House unveiled
At a press conference this morning attended by state and city dignitaries, Avesta Housing unveiled architectural plans for Florence House, the 50-bed shelter and transitional living facility for homeless women it’s developing with the Preble Street Resource Center. Avesta also revealed the site of the project: the block between 180 and 198 Valley Street, near the Greyhound bus station in the West End.
In addition to the shelter beds and efficiency apartments, Preble Street staff working at Florence House will provide educational and vocational help, and substance abuse and mental health intervention. The facility – which is named after Florence Young, a longtime staff and board member at Preble Street – is expected to open by late 2008 or early 2009.
January 9, 2007
Formula biz limits blamed for store closures
Portland’s formula business ordinance is being blamed for the closure of three storefronts on Congress Street. Matt Curtis, the owner of Cadillac Mountain Sports and two other shops on the same downtown block that sell Patagonia and North Face merchandise, announced today that all three stores will close by the end of March.
Curtis cited declining sales as a reason for the closure, but also what he called “a slap in the face from the City Council.” That “slap” is the law passed last November limiting the number, size and location of chain or franchise businesses in parts of the Old Port, downtown and Bayside.
“We cannot continue to grow in Portland with this ban and we cannot reverse our sales declines if Congress Street deteriorates,” said Curtis, who owns five other Cadillac Mountain locations, four of them in Bar Harbor. Those stores will remain open. “This ban is the opposite of everything I’ve learned about downtown revitalization,” he said in the press release announcing his decision.
Curtis opened his first Portland location in 2002, across from the L.L. Bean Factory Store and Olympia Sports. The Patagonia store followed in 2003, and the third shop opened last March. “We chose locations near L.L. Bean and Olympia Sports to create a critical mass of complementary retailers,” Curtis said. “This ordinance now makes achieving that vision impossible.”
Curtis’ businesses are exempt from the ordinance, because in this area of downtown, “formula” businesses are defined as those with features identical to at least 10 other businesses; there are eight Cadillac Mountain locations.
But the law will stop many types of chain or franchise business with more than 10 locations from opening in any of the spaces Curtis is vacating. That’s because his storefronts are within 200 feet of L.L. Bean, Olympia Sports, and a Mr. Bagel location, all of which are considered formula businesses.
Another 7-11, Cumberland Farms or CVS could open there, because drug stores and convenience stores are exempt from the law, as are chain businesses that offer services, rather than products, like video rental chains and cell phone stores.
A new law that could discontinue or amend the formula ordinance this summer pending further study of the business climate downtown was referred to a Council committee last week. That measure, introduced by City Councilor Ed Suslovic, now appears to lack the support of enough councilors to pass.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to force repeal of the limits via a citywide vote this summer.
Curtis has previously said the Portland Buy Local campaign also hurt his business. Though the non-profit group that launched that effort last July (the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance, or PIBCA) took no position on the formula limits, businesses must be headquartered within 150 miles of Portland to participate in its promotional campaign. Cadillac Mountain’s headquarters are in Bar Harbor, so Curtis’ application to participate was declined last summer.
Last November, Curtis told this reporter (a PIBCA board member) that customers were avoiding his Portland shops because he was not part of the Buy Local campaign. In December, the PIBCA board agreed to consider expanding its membership requirement later this year to include businesses headquartered anywhere in Maine.
January 5, 2007
MCLU saves Santa’s ass
State officials have reversed an earlier decision banning the sale of a beer called Santa’s Butt Winter Porter. The Maine Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit against the state last November, claiming censorship, announced the decision in an e-mail today.
Shelton Brothers, a brewer in Belchertown, Mass., had attempted to sell the porter and two other beers with labels state officials deemed too racy to appear on store shelves. One of those labels featured an image from Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People.” St. Nick’s behind was fully clothed on the porter label, which showed him sitting on a barrel of beer. The brewer’s Web site notes that in England, the term “butt” also refers to a large barrel of beer.
The label’s delayed approval was granted in a Dec. 22 letter to Shelton Brothers from state liquor license inspector Jeffrey Austin, the MCLU said. “It’s too bad the beer wasn’t in stores in time for Christmas,” said MCLU attorney Zachary Heiden in the press release, “but maybe this will make government agencies stop and think before involving themselves in any future suppression of expression.”
The e-mail notes that the MCLU is still pursuing legal action to stop the state from censoring other labels. Currently, beer labels must be certified and registered with the state before the brews can be sold here. The policy is meant to ensure information like contents and volume are accurately stated on the labels, but the state can deny beers with labels deemed “undignified or improper.”
“We’re happy about this change of heart, but the most important thing for us has always been wiping that bad regulation off the books, so that no one ever has to contend with it again,” said distributor Daniel Shelton, as quoted in the press release. “State agencies shouldn’t be reviewing beer labels on open-ended subjective standards like ‘propriety’ and ‘dignity.’ Beer drinkers in Maine and everywhere should be left alone to decide for themselves what offends them or doesn’t.”