Task force to nowhere

Walgreens No. 3?: The facade of the former Whole Grocer. (photo/Chris Busby)

Task force to nowhere
Group struggles to agree on “formula business” limits

By Patrick Banks 

When the Portland City Council passed a controversial ordinance in September 2006 limiting chain and franchise businesses on the peninsula, critics howled that, among other flaws, the law was drafted too quickly — that it was thrown together in response to the prospect a Hooters restaurant could open downtown. 

Councilors voted to repeal the so-called “formula business ordinance” five months later, and appointed a task force to study the issue and report back, hopefully by the end of the year. 

Critics can say what they will about that task force’s work, but it certainly hasn’t been rushed. A year after the group’s recommendations were expected, it’s still struggling to get enough members together to form a quorum at its monthly meetings so it can approve the minutes of the previous session. The task force has been slogging through stacks of economic data, and there’s very little, if any, agreement among its 16 members as to what, if anything, should be done to keep formula businesses out of town. 

“We went through boatloads of information to understand all possible options,” said City Councilor Dave Marshall, a co-chair of the task force. “Almost every issue has been a big debate. Even some issues that could be seen as non-controversial ended up being debated thoroughly.”  

Members now say a report could be forthcoming next spring — over two years after the task force’s inception. But they also say it’s highly unlikely that report will contain recommendations its members agree upon. More likely is the possibility two reports will be forwarded to the Council, one a “minority report” substantially different than whatever official report a majority of members approve. 

Meanwhile, national chains and franchises continue to make inroads in the Portland market. 

Hooters never materialized, and the regional fast-food franchise D’Angelo closed its Congress Street location this past summer after over a decade, replaced by an independently owned Thai restaurant. But in the Old Port, two cherished indie eateries, Granny’s Burritos and Big Mama’s Diner, are being replaced by formula businesses: Joe’s New York Pizza and Papaya King, respectively. 

Granted, neither of those enterprises would be considered a “formula business” under the new definition the task force has established: 150 or more locations worldwide (the original ordinance set a much lower threshold: 30 locations in the United States). But with nearly 7,000 locations, Walgreens would, and the giant pharmacy chain is aggressively moving into the Portland market it has heretofore ignored. Company officials have announced plans for three new stores this year: one next to Espo’s family restaurant on Allen Avenue, another near Woodfords Corner on Forest Avenue, and a third in Bayside, in the space formerly occupied by The Whole Grocer.  

Last June — after much debate, and before Walgreens’ plans for Bayside came to light — the task force voted 8-2 (with six members absent) to include Bayside in the scope of any future ordinance regulating or restricting formula businesses on the peninsula. The task force also managed to agree (barely) on two other recommendations: one that would make proposed formula businesses subject to more stringent zoning standards (passed 6-5), and another requiring that an “economic impact review” be conducted before approval of new stores over 20,000 square feet (passed 7-4). 

However, beneath those split votes there is deep disagreement over a much more central issue: whether the city should take any action to limit chains and franchises.    

“Some people are feeling that there is not anything that needs to be fixed,” said task force member Roxanne Cole, who represents the Maine Real Estate and Development Association. Cole thinks the “threat” formula businesses pose to Portland is overblown. “I don’t think that there is the problem that some people perceive there is,” she said. 

High-profile attorney Harold Pachios, who represents downtown property owners on the task force, agrees. He said he still hasn’t heard any compelling reasons why the task force should have been formed in the first place. “If you never define the problem, then whatever action you take is likely to be counterproductive and wrong,” Pachios said. 

Task force member Susan Tran, president of the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance (the group behind the Portland Buy Local campaign), disagrees. She said some sort of regulation of formula businesses is warranted. “My focus and concern in this whole process is making sure we have a level playing field for local businesses,” Tran said.

To that end, the task force unanimously agreed to recommend that the city support mentorship programs and small-business incubators, but the details, and the funding, associated with those efforts would be left to a future City Council to figure out.   

What recommendations will be included in the task force’s final report? That’s still anyone’s guess — not that any of its members are guessing. 

“I wouldn’t dare speculate at this point,” said Tran. “I don’t care to venture a guess this early.”


Full disclosure: Bollard editor and publisher Chris Busby is a PIBCA board member. PIBCA has not taken a position on the task force’s work thus far.