“Footloose” in Portland


Hard at work: Bars, restaurants and stores citywide will now be paying for extra police coverage in the Old Port, where problems are on the decline. (photo/Chris Busby)
Hard at work: Bars, restaurants and stores citywide will now be paying for extra police coverage in the Old Port, where problems are on the decline. (photo/Chris Busby)

“Footloose” in Portland 
Council passes big limits on booze and entertainment

By Chris Busby

The Portland City Council has passed sweeping new zoning limits on establishments offering both alcohol and live entertainment in the heart of the peninsula, and is preparing to impose these controls citywide. 

The Council also voted to raise the liquor license fees paid by bars, restaurants, convenience stores and grocery stores throughout Portland to cover the cost of additional police in the Old Port on summer weekend nights. In addition to the $61,000 annual tab for police overtime in the district, these license holders could be required to cover the cost of city liquor enforcement activities aimed at keeping them in line. That sum will be determined during this year’s city budget process.

And the Council made permanent the temporary limits enacted last year on so-called “after hours” entertainment between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. citywide. Liquor license holders who wish to offer such entertainment must limit attendance to those 21 and over; establishments without liquor licenses can admit patrons 18 and over.

The new zoning limits prohibit businesses offering both alcohol and live entertainment (music, comedy or theater) from locating within 100 feet of each other in the Old Port and the downtown Arts District – an area from State Street to India Street, Cumberland Avenue to the waterfront. 

The 100 feet will be measured along “sight lines” from the entrance of one business to another. Very little analysis has been done on the commercial space affected by the new law, but with about 50 locations throughout the area now under the ordinance, hundreds of thousands of square feet of downtown real estate are now off-limits to the performing arts and alcohol, in combination.

Any existing business of this type within 100 feet of another will not be immediately affected. However, when one of these businesses closes, relocates or changes ownership, that space becomes off-limits to a new owner wishing to continue to offer both live entertainment and alcohol – until the establishment nearby also closes, moves or changes owners. 

Over time, the limits will significantly change the character of the Old Port and Arts District, where there are numerous small clusters and strips of establishments offering drinking and entertainment. An ownership change at about two dozen popular nightlife spots effectively kills any future opportunity to have both drinking and live entertainment there.

Locations potentially impacted include: The Bistro at the Portland Harbor Hotel, Digger’s, Liquid Blue, The Iguana, Cake, 51 Wharf Street, Threeways, the Old Port Tavern, Bull Feeney’s, Granny’s Burritos, The Mercury, Fore Play Sports Pub, Amigo’s, Mim’s, Portland Lobster Company, O’Naturals, Natasha’s, Space Gallery, The White Heart, Shay’s Grill Pub, David’s Restaurant, Dogfish Bar and Grill, Mathew’s, The Stadium, and the Cumberland County Civic Center. Pending measurement of the distance between their main entrances, The Big Easy and the Portland Regency Hotel could also be impacted.

Another sizeable set of establishments that do not currently host live music, DJs, poetry or dramatic performances are now barred from doing so in the future. These include: Rivalries, The Flatbread Co., Uffa! Restaurant, Katahdin, Bibo’s Mad Apple Café, Norm’s Bar & Grill, the Commercial Street Pub, Cinque Terre, Street and Co., Greek Corner, Five Fifty Five, Mesa Verde, Margarita’s (Brown Street location), The Hilton Garden Inn, and the Dry Dock Restaurant and Tavern.

The Wine Bar, on Wharf Street, has scheduled a series of readings by members of a Shakespearean ensemble over the next two months, but does not hold an entertainment license. Its proximity to Cake, which does have an entertainment license, makes those performances illegal.

Uncle Billy’s Resto-bar, on Congress Street, hosted several acoustic folk and blues performances earlier this year, but also lacks an entertainment license. Its proximity to Blue, a music club across the street, may bar Billy’s from continuing to allow musicians to play there, pending a measurement by zoning administrators. 

Some Old Port establishments that once hosted live entertainment, like Gritty McDuff’s, are now barred from doing so due to their proximity to others that currently do. Several vacant locations that were once home to live music clubs – like The Alehouse’s former space on Market Street, and the subterranean space at the corner of Fore and Exchange streets previously occupied by Players and The Basement – cannot reopen as similar operations. 

Mayor Nick Mavodones joined Councilors Jim Cloutier, Jill Duson, Jim Cohen, Ed Suslovic, and Dr. Donna Carr in supporting the new limits. Councilors Dave Marshall, Cheryl Leeman, and Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the affected area, voted against them, though all three joined Suslovic in an unsuccessful effort to impose the limits citywide.

The city is expected to expand the limits throughout Portland once business owners off the peninsula have been notified of the proposed changes.

Several members of the public spoke out against the limits last night. Patrick Banks told councilors the new zoning “encourages empty storefronts, and more empty storefronts means less public safety.”

Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District (a tax-supported non-profit that promotes downtown businesses), compared Portland’s public safety problems to those of big cities like Tampa. She said that with new condominiums and dorms in the Arts District, it’s important to create an atmosphere that’s safe and appealing for downtown residents as well as workers and shoppers. 

Bull Feeney’s owner Doug Fuss, a member of the Old Port Nightlife Task Force the Council set up last year to study this issue, said that of all the task force’s recommendations, the dispersal requirement is “the most important one.

“One hundred feet isn’t much of a distance, but it’s just enough to ensure public safety,” Fuss said.

Justin Alfond of The League (the youth-centric political organization formerly known as The League of Pissed-Off Voters) also served on the task force. He called its process “rushed and flawed,” and said the new zoning “just doesn’t make sense.” 

In late March, the Portland Planning Board unanimously rejected the new zoning and tax initiative as unnecessary and ineffective.

Suslovic said the 100-foot rule is “critical” to “public safety and public health” in the area. 

“I stand by my interest in not regulating fun,” said Donoghue, who characterized the new zoning as “a collective punishment regime.” He said bars and clubs offering late-night entertainment enhance public safety by generating “more eyes on the street.”

“This is clearly entertainment licenses we’re going after here,” said Marshall. He added that the effort to limit nightlife on the peninsula puts the city “on a slippery slope towards temperance when we should be going toward tolerance.”

“I’m supportive of the creative economy,” declared Cohen. “But what happens after 1 a.m. on Wharf Street isn’t it.”

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