City still deeply divided over pier’s future
Different City Council may vote on deal
By Chris Busby
The public’s brief window to comment before the Portland City Council on two enormous private development proposals for the Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway opened and shut last Monday night in the span of two-and-a-half hours. There were few new voices among the roughly 50 speakers given three minutes each to weigh in on the matter. Confusion over when public comment would be taken may have led to a lower turnout.
Roughly half of those who spoke said the city should work with Ocean Properties, the politically connected, New Hampshire-based hotel and resort development company. Of the rest, about half endorsed the plan put forward by a Portland development firm, The Olympia Companies, and the remainder urged councilors to take more time to assess the impacts of the types of development under consideration.
Among those advocating for further study and discussion, several said they preferred Olympia’s proposal. The bulk of those who spoke in favor of Ocean Properties (OP) identified themselves as union workers, though top union officials in Maine have vigorously denied there’s any agreement with OP to use organized labor on the project. Some non-union building trades representatives have suggested that if OP gets the nod, unionized workers from out of state would perform most of the construction work.
Notably, two former city officials publicly threw their support behind OP Monday night. One was former City Councilor and Mayor George Campbell, a top executive with the giant Portland real estate firm CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Company. Campbell, who now resides in Portsmouth, said he’s long been a friend of OP founder and chairman Tom Walsh.
The other was former City Councilor Will Gorham, who represented the district that includes the eastern waterfront until last fall, when he lost his bid for a second three-year term to current District 1 Councilor Kevin Donoghue.
The Council is scheduled to vote Sept. 5 on whether to begin closed-door negotiations with either company. Earlier this summer, the Council’s Community Development Committee (CDC) voted 2-1 to recommend Ocean Properties as the preferred bidder, but said Olympia also put forward a viable proposal that should be considered if talks with Ocean Properties fail.
City Manager Joe Gray and city staff would conduct the contract talks, possibly with guidance from city councilors and the assistance of a private-sector specialist, yet to be identified, who is familiar with the type of “capital lease” agreement expected to be on the table. Any contract that results from these negotiations would go back to the Council for approval, and there would be at least one additional opportunity for public comment before a deal is signed.
City Councilor and CDC Chairman Jim Cloutier said officials would likely know if a workable deal can be struck after about two months of talks. But he said it’s highly unlikely a final contract would come before the Council for approval before this November’s municipal election.
That timeframe promises to make this matter a potent political issue in this fall’s City Council campaigns. Three of the nine Council seats are up for grabs – all of them currently occupied by representatives considered amenable to commercial development on the public’s waterfront properties.
One of the three is Cloutier, an at-large councilor seeking a fourth term as a citywide representative. Fellow at-large Councilor and CDC member Jill Duson is also up for re-election this fall, though she has expressed strong interest in running for Congress next year. At the CDC level, Duson joined Cloutier in recommending OP as the preferred developer.
The third seat belongs to District 3 Councilor Donna Carr, who represents Libbytown, Stroudwater, and neighborhoods near the University of Southern Maine. It’s widely rumored that Carr will not seek a second term, but she has not publicly ruled out another run, and vowed earlier this summer that her name will appear on the ballot regardless. She did not return a call seeking comment.
A change in even one Council seat this November could make or break a deal for the pier’s private redevelopment. That’s because at least three councilors have already expressed strong reservations about the pace and conduct of the process thus far: Cheryl Leeman, Dave Marshall, and Donoghue.
City Councilor Jim Cohen has recused himself from the Council’s consideration of this matter due to his professional ties to a legal and public relations firm working for Olympia. Five “yes” votes would be required to approve a contract for the site’s redevelopment, so if four councilors oppose it and four support it, the deal dies.
It’s also quite possible only seven councilors will vote on a final contract. Mayor Nick Mavodones may also recuse himself if a deal is brought before the Council that includes a new freight shed or other improvements for his employer, the Casco Bay Island Transit District, a quasi-public entity that operates the Casco Bay Lines ferry service.
Both development teams have proposed to build such a shed and make other investments to improve operations at Casco Bay Lines. Mavodones is the ferry service’s operations manager (and the boss of this reporter’s wife, CBL operations agent Meghan Busby).
Mavodones has said he will not step aside when the Council votes on whether to start negotiations with Olympia or OP next month, but left open the possibility he will recuse himself from voting should a final contract result. [See “Conflict of interest?,” July 24, in News.] Under that scenario, a super-minority of three councilors could nix the deal.
Marshall and Donoghue moved to force Mavodones to recuse himself at Monday’s meeting, but their motion failed by a vote of 6-2.
At the start of last night’s session, Mavodones acknowledged that a statement on the meeting’s agenda may have led some people to believe public comment would not be taken until Sept. 5.
“In conjunction with this order, there will be a public hearing on the proposals submitted by Ocean Properties, LTD and the Olympia Companies,” the order read. “Staff is recommending that this item be postponed to the September 5th Council meeting.”
At some point on Monday, a note was added to the city’s Web site explaining that although the Council’s vote on the order is being postponed until Sept. 5, the opportunity for public comment was that night.