The Wild End of Wharf Street
Will Portland’s notorious nightclub district grow up or die?
by Chris Busby
The YouTube video begins seconds after a drunken young woman has fallen in the snow covering the paving stones of Wharf Street. She’s standing with the help of a female bystander, a man who appears to be a bouncer, and a young blonde woman dressed almost identically to her: red-and-white plaid button-down shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. The drunken woman flaps her right arm to shake off the snow, then brings the sleeve up to her face to wipe her forehead and runny nose. A young man, also woefully underdressed for the temperature, briefly approaches to console her, but a moment later he’s pointing angrily at another guy and being held back by a third. The young woman staggers out of the frame alone, sobbing.
The object of the man’s anger is dressed, like the women, in a red plaid flannel and blue jeans. He’s almost too hammered to stand. Two other young men, wearing red-and-white plaid short-sleeved shirts and jeans, but apparently sober, appear to be telling him to leave. He does not, and they continue talking beyond the camera microphone’s range.
It’s just past midnight on Sunday, January 25, 2015. Young adults are walking by in various stages of intoxication. This is the Old Port, the epicenter of Portland’s nightlife scene, and Wharf Street is ground zero for college-age and older singles looking to drink and hook up. A thick group of them are standing in front of Bonfire, the country-and-western bar that opened on Wharf Street late last summer. The guys in the short-sleeved shirts are bouncers at Bonfire, and the blonde woman works there, too. She stomps over to the cameraman.
“Please stop recording,” she tells him. “Why are you doing this?”
“Just protecting our investment,” he says.
The footage continues. A short, stocky guy with a goatee appears, wearing a black jacket, and stands watching the two bouncers converse with the hammered dude. Suddenly, right at the three-minute mark, he pulls a flashlight out of his jacket pocket and shines it directly into the camera’s lens, where it lingers for five more seconds, blinding the viewer with harsh white light. He approaches the cameraman, coming so close he’s no longer in the frame. He’s very pissed off.
“What’re you doin’?” he demands.
“I’m filming what’s going on on Wharf Street. What are you doing?”
“Why don’t you just go back to your fucking place?” the goateed guy says.
“What are you gonna do, shoot me?” the cameraman asks.
“I’m gonna shoot you? I have a gun on me?” the guy replies incredulously. “Give me a fuckin’ break. Why don’t you just go to work?”
“I’m workin’ right now,” says the cameraman.
“You’re a piece of shit, is what you are.”
“Thank you. Thanks for sharing that with me.”
“You’re welcome. You’re more than welcome,” goateed guy says, taking a few steps back to where the bouncers are still talking, now amiably, with the drunk guy. But then he reapproaches the camera and tries to cover the lens with his hand. He can’t reach it. He’s too short.
“If only you were a little bit taller,” the cameraman says in a slightly mocking, but calm, tone.
“I guess so, yeah. That’d be a big problem, wouldn’t it?”
“Want to introduce yourself?”
“No, sure, I’ve got no problem introducing myself,” he says, but he does not. Nor does he need to. It’s clear these two have met before. “Why don’t you just go inside and go to work?” he keeps telling the cameraman.
“I’m working and so are you.”
“You’re a piece of shit,” he repeats, then his voice gets angrier. “Do something, dude,” he tells the cameraman, inviting a fight. “Do something! You are a piece of shit! Constantly causing problems!”
A man in a black shirt approaches and tries to coax the goateed guy away. “Block his camera!” the short man implores.
“We can’t,” says the man in black.
“Tanner, yes, yes you can,” the goateed guy insists as the first of three cops walks into the scene. (In the background, a woman walks by holding a red plastic Solo cup with a straw. One of the short-sleeved bouncers spots her, takes the cup from her hand, and gives it to the blonde employee, who hustles it back inside Bonfire.)
“Can we keep this guy away from my bar?” the goateed man asks the cop. “Please? He’s causing problems and he won’t leave me alone.”
“This is my bar,” the cameraman says. “I’m in front of my bar.”
“What’s your name, man?” the cop asks the angry guy.
“Robert. I manage this bar,” he says, pointing at Bonfire, “and I manage 51 Wharf,” pointing slightly to the left. “He’s been aggravating, instigating. I want him away from the bar.”
“Relax,” the cop tells him, and as the policeman turns toward the camera the man holding it asks, “What’s your name, officer?” That’s where the video ends.
The man behind the camera is Tim McNamara, and it’s clear from the perspective of the video that he was standing right of front of his business, The Bar of Chocolate Café, the entire time. (Of course, had he been standing in front of Bonfire and filming the scene in the street, he still would have been entirely within his rights.)
McNamara and his partner, Sarah Martin, have owned and operated the café for the past 10 years. It opens daily at 4 p.m. and serves specialty cocktails, beer and wine, coffee drinks, snacks, and desserts Martin makes in the café’s kitchen.
McNamara and Martin are fully aware of Wharf Street’s reputation as a rough and rowdy place. Before opening Bar of Chocolate, Martin worked down the street at Gritty McDuff’s brewpub for many years. They’ve seen the street go from bad to worse to better and back again.
“We were at a spot six months or a year ago that was much better than it was eight or 10 years ago,” McNamara said during a recent interview at the café. “And that’s because some of the bad businesses that had operated here failed. We were at a spot with a mix of retail and shop and bar and restaurant .… Things were good.”
“It’s still very close to being a great street,” said Martin. “We want a street that everyone is comfortable walking down. You don’t have to feel like you have to be a certain type of person to go down Wharf Street.”
The street’s safety declined last summer, they said, when Bonfire opened in a space previously occupied by a clothing shop. The country-themed bar is owned by Tanner Herget, who also owns 51 Wharf, a nightclub and seasonal restaurant a couple doors down the same side of the street, which opened in 2006.
The first thing neighbors noticed about Bonfire was the music — modern country played at a fairly high volume, from late afternoon until late every night, through a big speaker placed on the sidewalk outside the bar. Until winter arrived, Bonfire essentially owned the brick sidewalk in front of the establishment, as well, having received permission from the city to set up a patio that completely blocked the walkway, forcing pedestrians of all ages and abilities onto the uneven paving stones. When the snow started to fly, the patio enclosure was removed, but the speaker remained.
Every time the café’s door was opened, the country music wafted inside like an obnoxious breeze. That was complaint number one, as far as Martin and McNamara were concerned. Others soon followed.
Incidents of Bonfire patrons puking and peeing in the street further aggravated the café owners and the proprietors of other Wharf Street businesses, which include classy restaurants like Street and Co., Vignola/Cinque Terre, and The Merry Table, a French bistro between 51 Wharf and Bonfire that closed last month.
Of particular concern to McNamara was the presence of Bonfire staff mingling with patrons and passersby in the street, during and after operating hours. “You can see them out in the middle of Wharf Street talking with, arguing with, and fighting with people in the street. And that concerns us, that there’s no boundary to the business,” he said.
“I think the rule has always been, in bar businesses, that once the problem’s out the door it’s out the door,” he continued. “Now, maybe you started the problem by either over-serving them or allowing somebody in there that shouldn’t have been in there, but what’s happening is they have effectively co-opted a chunk of Wharf Street … and that’s a problem.”
McNamara emphasized that his video was shot at midnight, an hour before closing time, and clearly shows Bonfire staff interacting with people in the street, like the guy almost too sloshed to stand, who may or may not have been at Bonfire that night.
The star — or, one might say, villain — of the video is Robert “Bobby” Dyer. Wags on the street have nicknamed him Bobby Gun, because he can often be seen with a firearm on his hip, generally before and after the bars he manages are open for business. In an interview with Herget and Dyer inside Bonfire last month, I asked Dyer why he felt the need to carry a gun.
Dyer said he packs heat after hours, when he’s counting cash in the bars’ “money room,” for his own protection. The doors to Herget’s establishments cannot legally be locked after closing time, he claimed — “they have to be emergency opened, right?” — and “the last thing I need is someone come down and decide to do something.”
Herget also carries a gun for protection, concealed beneath his suit jacket; unlike his manager, he has a concealed-weapons permit. “I’ve been maced twice here, somebody’s pulled a knife, somebody was breaking into my car,” Herget said. “Those are all things that happen sometimes at 3 a.m.”
He added that he and Dyer often accompany female employees to their vehicles after closing time and then must walk back to Wharf Street alone. They feel safer knowing they can use deadly force if necessary, but Dyer stressed that his gun is kept in a safe during operating hours. “It’s not meant to intimidate anybody,” he said.
Whereas McNamara views the presence of Bonfire staff in the street as a problem, Dyer considers that proactive crowd management. He said safety on Wharf Street has improved lately. “Camera systems are now up. Lights are better. Security is better trained,” he told me. “They’ve got a softer touch where they’re dealing with drunk people and not manhandling them. It’s a different environment.”
Dyer and Herget also noted that Bonfire attracts an older clientele than dance clubs like 51 Wharf; Oasis, which is across Wharf Street; and The Pearl, a club right next to 51 Wharf. (Two other establishments in the area become dance clubs at night: Fore Play, on Fore Street, and the Old Port Tavern, at the intersection of Wharf and Moulton streets.)
When I visited Bonfire earlier in February, late on a Saturday night, the place was crowded, but I still found a spot at the bar. At 43, I may have been the oldest person there, but on a subsequent visit, during happy hour, I noted the presence of several other customers my senior.
Bonfire is a modern country bar in every respect. Outlets to recharge cell phones have been installed next to all of the half-dozen or so tables and at intervals of a couple feet all along the bar. Big TVs tuned either to sports or country music videos are everywhere, and customers can select music videos to play on the screens by accessing a website with their phones.
Bonfire boasts a self-service “beer wall” — a row of taps where patrons can pour their own brew. To do so, you purchase a card from the bartender for the dollar amount of your choice, and when you insert it into a slot by the taps, it charges your card based on the number of ounces you dispense. (Video screens next to the taps indicate the brand of beer, the cost per ounce, and other information about the product.)
Several bar managers I spoke with last month shuddered at the prospect of allowing customers such ready access to beer taps, which can easily be contaminated, ruining the flavor. But at no time during either of my visits did I see anyone using the beer wall, much less molesting the taps.
I certainly did notice when, around midnight on Saturday night, Herget lifted one of the Daisy Duke-clad bartenders onto the bar and handed her a bottle of whiskey. Another bartender handed me a little red plastic Solo cup — all the drinks at Bonfire are served in these cups; even wine, which arrives in a red plastic goblet — and the bartender walking above me filled it, unbidden, on her way around the bar to pour shots for the rest of those assembled. I didn’t drink it, but neither was I charged for the shot, which Herget poured into a sink when he made his way around the bar again, having supervised while his employee poured shots for others.
I asked Herget about this practice during our interview two weeks later. In what universe is this legal?
“That’s built into our atmosphere and our fun,” he said. According to Herget, both the bartender who hands the little cups to customers and the one pouring whiskey from above assess the sobriety of each patron before deciding whether or not to serve them. Herget, as noted, is typically present, as well. The shots, he said, are technically not free: the bartender “is actually paying for them, so we’re not giving away alcohol, right?”
Well, not exactly. But it hardly matters whether the booze at Bonfire is free. One can get wrecked there for cheap any night of the week. During Bonfire’s daily happy hour, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., whiskey shots only cost $1. The bar serves “Bonfire Bowls” of booze for individuals and groups of up to eight people. The “Trailer Trash,” one of Bonfire’s signature “Redneck Cocktails,” contains vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec and sour mix, topped off with some Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“People look at it, and they’re looking at the glitz and the glamour and the fun-ness of it, which is great,” Herget said, referring to the free whiskey shots, “but there’s a lot of things that have been set up to make sure that everything’s within the law and that we’re actually over the law.”
Herget, who’ll turn 33 this summer, spends most of the week with his family in Portsmouth and drives up to Portland on weekends. He said people have accused him of bringing liquor up from New Hampshire, where it’s considerably less expensive, to serve in his bars — an illegal practice that he denies. He also denies “marrying” booze from big bottles to smaller ones, which is another practice state liquor-enforcement authorities frown upon.
“I’m very much within the law,” he told me. “You know, when you have to let somebody go and somebody threatens you because you’re doing something against the law, they’re trying to one-up you. So I’ve learned to stay within the law.”
McNamara isn’t convinced that’s the case, and having failed to make progress by talking with Herget and Dyer, he’s brought his case against the country bar to the attention of the police. McNamara is among a group of about a half-dozen business and property owners in the area (the identities of whom McNamara declined to reveal) that sent a letter to the police department last month detailing their concerns about the bar’s operation. Soon after it was received, the cops met with Herget and got one grievance taken care of: Herget agreed to bring the speaker on the sidewalk inside.
Later this month, McNamara plans to give a formal presentation about the neighboring businesses’ concerns to the city’s Nightlife Oversight Committee (NLOC). NLOC is a quasi-official group of bar owners that meets more-or-less monthly at the office of Portland’s Downtown District, with a police lieutenant in attendance. They review police calls for service at establishments seeking annual renewal of their liquor license, make recommendations to the City Council regarding those renewals, and discuss public safety issues related to bars, some of which are also forwarded to the Council for consideration and action.
For the past four years, the chairman of NLOC has been none other than Tanner Herget.
The fact that Herget, the alleged cause of so much trouble in the Old Port, has headed the group tasked with making the district safer is emblematic of the city’s ass-backward approach to the issue.
A prime example of this approach is the so-called “100-foot rule,” which prevents establishments with both liquor and entertainment licenses from operating within 100 feet of one another, ostensibly to prevent their patrons from mingling and fighting after last call. When the ordinance was passed last decade, bars that already had both licenses were “grandfathered” and allowed to keep operating as usual, so the dense concentration of nightclubs in the Old Port hasn’t really changed. Meanwhile, a new watering hole like Bonfire can blast country music till the cows come home, but as long as no one inside shuffles their boots to do a little two-step, they’re within the law. (Dancing is illegal at drinking establishments without entertainment licenses.)
Meanwhile, across Wharf Street at Buck’s Naked BBQ, recorded music can play through speakers on the patio and musicians can play inside, but they cannot amplify their music with electricity, and dancing is verboten. Buck’s occupies a large space at the corner of Wharf and Union streets. The previous tenant, a Latin restaurant called Havana South, closed a few years ago, unable to attract enough business to cover the high rent typical of spaces in Portland’s premier entertainment and tourism district.
Hosting blues or funk bands, as Buck’s does at their Freeport location, would bring a lot more people through the door, said Kaitlin Golding, general manager of the Wharf Street Buck’s, but unless the band plays unplugged, that’s not permissible in Portland. On one occasion when a musician plugged into an amp, Golding said Herget heard it and came into the restaurant to warn staff that it was against the law.
Ironically, this is exactly the type of business city officials and developers say they want more of in the Old Port — restaurants that serve families and a more civilized clientele. The 100-foot rule makes it harder for these types of establishments to survive.
“You don’t see families walking down this street,” said Golding, whose restaurant has a playroom for kids and closes at 10 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. “I would definitely say sometimes people are deterred from walking in here because of the [street’s] reputation.”
Fights occur on Wharf Street nearly every week, said Golding. She said the police, who often stand in her restaurant’s doorway to observe the action, are responsive, and “Bobby [Dyer] will be right out there making sure that things are under control, but it definitely breaks out and it is a little frightening …. It’s nerve-racking seeing everyone wasted and flipping out, you know?”
Who’s ultimately responsible for all this mayhem?
“It was my fault,” said Joe Soley, the infamous Old Port developer and landlord. Soley was only semi-serious — indeed, one could make the argument that his efforts transformed the Old Port from a seedy den of drunken sailors and fishermen into the thriving commercial district it is today. When Soley began visiting Portland from his summer house in Camden in the early 1970s, “it wasn’t just rowdy, it was dangerous,” he recalled.
Soley credits his late friend and fellow developer Frank Akers with having the vision that made the Old Port a success. “He wanted to make it a real good people place,” said Soley. “He said what’s going to make it is bars and restaurants.”
Soley bought properties along Fore Street in bulk. He made what he called “reasonable” offers to the individual property owners there, but with a caveat — if they declined his offer, he told them he wouldn’t buy anything on the street. Eventually, they all came around. On Wharf Street, Soley said he developed a total of 17 commercial spaces along what was previously little more than a dark alley.
Nancy Lawrence, a retailer on Wharf Street, recalled the improvements made there four decades ago, when the city got a federal grant to spruce up the area. A “small army of unemployed men” showed up to lay the iconic paving stones, plant trees and install benches. Sadly, the city has since neglected Wharf Street. The benches are gone, as are the trees and a series of four attractive granite-and-wooden gates that once kept cars out. Gas lamp–style light fixtures installed years ago broke and were never repaired. The paving stones have buckled and sunk for lack of maintenance, making walking treacherous and creating huge puddles in places where the drain is now higher than the street.
Soley fondly remembered the one approach that effectively kept the peace on the street, even after the bars let out: a diminutive but authoritative female police sergeant who patrolled the district on a horse. “You didn’t need a squad of policemen. You didn’t need those six guys standing around,” he said. “All she did was take that horse through there, she just looked at everything and it was quiet.”
“That was bad-ass,” said Bob Waitkevitch, who’s owned and operated Fore Play for 20 years. “I saw that [horse] take people down more than once.” A mere turn of its head could send an aggressive drunk flying.
As Soley recalled, the city got rid of its mounted police program in the 1990s, citing its expense. “It seems to me that a horse is a lot less expensive than some patrolmen,” he said. “But that was the decision of our wonderful policemen at that time.”
In 2003, Soley sold his block of properties at the western end of Wharf Street and Fore Street to his friend, a successful accountant and businessman named Ed Baumann, for $5.6 million. Baumann turned them over to his son, Steve, to manage, and for the first time in decades, it looked like Wharf Street was destined for a safer, more refined future. Guests at the recently constructed Portland Harbor Hotel, situated across from Wharf Street’s wild western end, had been complaining about the noise at night, and the City Council was listening.
“You have people spending $350 a night to sleep tight,” said Councilor Will Gorham, who represented the Old Port on the Council and served on its Public Safety Committee at the time. “Believe me, they’re not sleeping tight at 2 a.m. when the bands are going.”
Steve Baumann, a real estate broker who’d previously co-owned The Pavilion nightclub on Middle Street, sought to assure city officials that improvements he and his father were making to their properties would also improve public safety, but little progress was made. The 100-foot rule stymied plans to move one troublesome club farther away from the hotel, and councilors were repeatedly bamboozled by characters like Tom Manning, who claimed the addition of full-course meals or comedy nights at his college bars and dance clubs somehow made them more respectable or “upscale.”
Manning’s mini-empire, which at its zenith included five Old Port establishments, crumbled in 2007 after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer on Wharf Street while intoxicated the previous summer. The Baumanns sold their block of properties in 2008, when Ed’s health began to fail, to a group of investors from New York that subsequently went bankrupt. The foreclosed properties languished during the recession, and were finally sold at auction, in 2013, to Dream Port 3 LLC, the development subsidiary of a New Jersey-based company called U.S. Real Estate Advisors. Their winning bid was $5.6 million.
Dream Port developer Steve Wolgin declined to comment for this story, but according to Soley, after buying the block, Wolgin sought his advice. “‘What do I do with it?’” Soley said Wolgin asked him, to which he replied, “‘I don’t know, but you paid, in these times, a wild price for it. I mean, sure, if you could make it work, but it’s gonna take you years.’ So that’s when he called in all the architects.”
Dream Port solicited plans from three highly regarded architectural firms in town, and assessed them as if conducting a kind of contest. The winning plan, drawn up by Archetype, envisions an open-concept “public market” in the Wharf Street building presently occupied by Buck’s Naked BBQ. A skywalk, or “pedestrian bridge,” connects that market space to another on Fore Street. Three floors of residential units are above the markets, topped with penthouse condominiums. Ground-floor spaces labeled “retail” in the plans could include restaurants, but the computer-generated streetscapes mostly depict quaint shops, and there’s nary a nightclub in sight.
According to an informed source, the project is estimated to cost about $14 million (or $20 million, if one includes the nearly $6 million already shelled out at auction). That sum makes observers like Soley skeptical the plans will ever become reality.
“I hate to say it, but the most efficient way would be really to tear it down, build another hotel,” Soley said of the Fore Street buildings he once owned. Constructing new, additional floors atop brick buildings well over a century old strikes Soley as folly. “We have one new building in there, but all the rest is just really patchwork,” he said. “They’re fragile buildings.” He recalled that decades ago, the entire brick façade of 446 Fore St., on the corner of Union Street, fell away from the building and onto the sidewalk one night (no one was injured, he said). From the Union Street side, you can see today how it’s secured to the rest of the structure with rusty metal fixtures.
Soley and his son, Tim, recently developed the Hyatt Place Portland hotel across Fore Street from that building. In January, the Press Herald reported that hotel guests at the new Hyatt and (once again) the Portland Harbor Hotel are complaining about the noise of Wharf and Fore Street revelers late at night. And again, city councilors are listening.
The Council’s Public Safety Committee plans to revisit a sound ordinance, established in response to earlier complaints, that limits noise to 92 decibels outside bars. But the committee’s chairman, Councilor Ed Suslovic, thinks gentrification is the ultimate solution. Suslovic “sees the problem as temporary, with clubs being replaced in the long term by establishments that attract an older, more sophisticated crowd, driven by the neighborhood’s rising real estate values,” the daily reported in January. (Suslovic did not return a call from The Bollard seeking comment.)
In their defense, Old Port bar owners cite the fact the developers knew they were building hotels in the midst of a popular nightlife district, and say they should have sound-proofed them properly. The façade of the Portland Harbor Hotel, for example, is not actually brick, as it appears to be from afar, but rather a thin layer of construction material more decorative than practical.
Though they have common sense on their side, the bar owners are ultimately at the mercy of a City Council that has displayed a distinct lack of common sense when it comes to liquor establishments — most recently in the decision to shutter Sangillo’s Tavern, the third-generation family-owned bar on the outskirts of the Old Port, where development pressures are also strong.
At last month’s NLOC meeting, Oasis owner Nick Dambrie sized up the challenge ahead. The hotels’ complaints may be unfounded, but, “Unfortunately, we’re now faced with two Goliaths in the city of Portland: the Batemans [i.e., Bateman Partners, developer of the Portland Harbor Hotel] and the Soleys, that have got a lot of money and a lot of pull. We need to band together.”
Granted, banding together won’t help the clubs if, for example, Dream Port simply decides not to renew their leases — Oasis, Fore Play, the two Pearls and 51 Wharf are all in Dream Port’s properties; Bonfire is not. Waitkevitch said he’s been assured by Wolgin that Dream Port wants Fore Play to be part of their new development, “but it’s hard to stay part of it if there’s no building,” he said. (In Archetype’s plans, titled, “The Rebirth of Wharf Street,” the building Fore Play occupies is gone, replaced with the half of the imaginary Old Port Market that would front Fore Street.)
“The best thing I can say, I guess, is we have long leases in these spots, at least five to ten years, so it’s not like it’s going to change anytime soon,” said Herget.
“Whether it’s New Orleans or Boston, every city deals with new developments … and the nightlife doesn’t disappear. The Old Ports don’t disappear. The bar districts don’t disappear. So I don’t think it’s going to disappear. It’s going to make us have to get along with each other, maybe a little more cooperation. I think that’s the only thing that’s going to change, is cooperation between each other, because now we have no choice — we’re right together, so we’ve got to cooperate. That’s what’s going to be different.”
Sounds good, but that’s much easier said than done. The guy who gave me that long quote you just read? On the street, they call him Bobby Gun.