Big holes in city agreement for Maine State Pier
No megaberth, no parking, uncertain lease
By Chris Busby
Nine months after city officials voted to start closed-door negotiations with The Olympia Companies to redevelop the Maine State Pier, they emerged this morning with a so-called “term sheet” that leaves big parts of the project up in the air.
Among the question marks…
• Olympia is no longer committed to building a megaberth (a long berth capable of docking most cruise ships) at the Ocean Gateway facility next to the state pier. The city may seek another developer to build the berth.
• The term sheet includes a 75-year lease for the publicly owned Maine State Pier, but state officials, who claim rights to the submerged land under the pier, will not allow the land to be leased for more than 30 years. The lack of a long-term lease jeopardizes Olympia’s ability to finance the project, and may require the city to pursue expensive legal action challenging the state’s position.
• Olympia has still not indicated where or how it would provide parking for its proposal, which includes a luxury hotel, an office building, a public park, a restaurant and several other structures atop the pier. Olympia head Kevin Mahaney said parking would be addressed when the project goes before the planning board for site-plan review — a step that may be several years away.
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, a member of the negotiation team, said the city decided to address the megaberth issue separately because, unlike Olympia’s pier plan, officials are confident the permits necessary to build the megaberth can be secured. Also, if the megaberth can be completed before construction begins on the Maine State Pier, where cruise ships currently dock, then the city will not be left without a berth for cruise ships during construction.
The Council’s Community Development Committee, which Leeman chairs, will discuss the megaberth later this month. Among the details to be decided will be what concessions the city might make to entice another private developer to spend upwards of $7 million or more to build the megaberth. Those concessions could include allowing the developer to operate Ocean Gateway and receive the berthing fees cruise ship companies pay to dock there, allowing a developer to build a private marina nearby (at least one party has already pitched such a project), and offering additional public land along the waterfront to the megaberth’s developer, officials said.
Councilors will also have to ponder how a megaberth operated by a second development company would mesh with Olympia’s plan to handle cruise ships at the Maine State Pier. At least one councilor has privately raised doubts as to whether it makes sense for Olympia to build cruise ship infrastructure on the pier if the megaberth next door would be the primary berth.
Mayor Ed Suslovic, an ardent proponent of the megaberth, said the city could benefit from having two deep-water berths on days when two cruise ships are scheduled to come to town. He said there was discussion of Olympia not building cruise ship infrastructure on the pier due to the megaberth’s expected role, but the difference between redeveloping the pier with cruise facilities or without them was not significant enough to amend Olympia’s proposal accordingly.
Councilors reached for comment today were not overly concerned about the lease and parking issues. Olympia has said it’s set aside $13 million to secure parking somewhere in the area, and city officials hope further discussions with the state will settle the lease dispute. The city was able to get title insurance to the pier property, which may make the title insurance company responsible for defending the city’s ownership claim in court.
The full Council is expected to review the term sheet and take action to approve or reject it later this month.