Commercial Street Showdown

photo/Chris Busby
photo/Chris Busby

Commercial Street Showdown
Tour operators tangle on Portland’s waterfront

by Hannah Joyce McCain

It some ways it’s easy to operate a company giving tours of Portland. Anyone can do it, anytime they want. You don’t need a business license from the city or any kind of special permit. You just set up a table on the sidewalk or stand there, handing out brochures, and then off you go, by land or sea, with a few dozen strangers aboard.

When Khaled Habash was preparing to start his business, The Scenic Route Maine Tours, in 2012, he called City Hall and was amazed that Portland doesn’t require a license, a background check, or any information whatsoever from tour operators. Habash had previously sold shore excursions to cruise ship passengers in Alaska. His wife and business partner, Jen Atkinson, worked as a tour guide there.

“After I hung up,” Habash said, “I had my wife call back 15 minutes later and ask herself, just to make sure the first answer wasn’t a fluke.”

In other ways, it’s hard to hawk tickets on the waterfront. “You get told to fuck off all the time,” a former hawker told me. “You have to get right in people’s faces. It sucks.”

These days some tour operators are catching flack from other fronts, too. A couple who own one of the more established tour businesses in town are in the midst of a nasty feud with a fellow tour operator, and the couple’s complaints have prompted the city to enforce laws against unauthorized solicitation that hawkers have been ignoring for years.

Once it was ridiculously easy to run tours in Maine’s largest city. Now it’s just getting ridiculous.

“They’re trying to run me out of business,” Keith Nuki told me, sitting in a dark-paneled bar on a balmy Tuesday afternoon, drinking a beer. His graying hair is disheveled and there are weary circles under his eyes.

“They” are Bill and Kathy Frappier, who together own Portland Discovery Land & Sea Tours. Their company sells excursions by trolley and boat, and has a ticket office in a small seasonal building at Long Wharf, on Commercial Street.

Nuki used to have a good, and profitable, relationship with the Frappiers. He hung around Long Wharf with his camera, taking pictures of their customers before they boarded and selling them the shots when they returned. This was last decade, before phones with good cameras became ubiquitous, so many tourists considered Nuki’s service an added amenity.

The relationship went sour four seasons ago. Nuki showed me a letter from an attorney representing the Frappiers. “In 2011,” it reads, “an altercation occurred when Kathy Frappier … asked Mr. Nuki to stop shooting photographs because it was impeding the loading of Portland Discovery’s trolleys. Mr. Nuki’s response was to launch into a profanity-ridden tirade against Ms. Frappier audible not only to Portland Discovery staff but also to numerous customers nearby. Among other things, Mr. Nuki called Ms. Frappier a cunt.”

Nuki remembers the situation differently. For one thing, he denies calling Kathy Frappier that name. Nuki told me that by 2011 he was ready to quit the photography gig and was considering starting his own tour business. He said he even mentioned the idea to Bill Frappier, who “told me he’d partner with me on it.”

That partnership didn’t happen, but Nuki’s tour business did. In 2012, he found an old-fashioned, 1970s fire engine for sale and retrofitted it for tour passengers. He named the business Portland Fire Engine Co. The bright red truck parks in front of Portland Lobster Company, just steps from the Frappiers’ ticket booth on Long Wharf, and often right in front of one of their trolleys.

“I did have some idea of the sort of competition I’d be getting into, of course,” Nuki said. “The Frappiers were at that time giving, I think, 105-minute tours. So I made mine shorter, 45 minutes,” he told me, stressing that he tried not to directly compete with Portland Discovery. Besides, he added, the fire engine can only fit 12 passengers; the Frappiers’ trolleys can carry over 30.

Though the Frappiers couldn’t stop Nuki from parking his engine on the street, they could make trouble for him on the sidewalk. So they did.

Last year, at the Frappiers’ instigation, the city began enforcing a rarely enforced code provision that bars solicitation on public ways by unlicensed businesses without a brick-and-mortar establishment. There is no license for tour companies, and Nuki, unlike the Frappiers, had no building to distribute his brochures or sell tickets, so he was violating the ordinance and the city’s lawyers let him know.

When the Maine Brew Bus started giving tours of breweries in 2012 — and parking its bright green bus about a block away from Long Wharf — it also ran afoul of the Frappiers. “Bill approached us when we first set up, asking to see our business license,” said driver and guide Don Littlefield. Rather than fight the Frappiers, or City Hall, the Brew Bus moved across and down the street a couple blocks, and found a brick-and-mortar location to call its own — sorta.

The Brew Bus formed a partnership with the proprietors of Craft Beer Cellar, a franchise that opened on Commercial Street last year. Craft Beer Cellar displays the Brew Bus’ brochures and sells some tickets for its tours. It also allows the tour company to put a little green podium, about a foot wide, on its front step. According to Littlefield, this totem’s presence on private property functions as his business’ brick-and-mortar presence, thus enabling the Brew Bus to legally solicit customers on the sidewalk.

Nuki tried to wiggle into another loophole last year. The city code exempts “street artists [who] create or sell works of art” from the solicitation ban, so he wheeled a cart he used for his photography gig onto the sidewalk and made that the home base from which he sold pictures and tickets for his tours.

Trouble is, only the former activity is legal under the ordinance. Nuki said the Frappiers hired a private investigator to catch him selling tickets from his photography cart. He had to go to court, pay a fine, and sign a consent order that forbids him from promoting or selling tour tickets within 10 feet of his cart.

So what happens if a tourist approaches Nuki’s cart and asks him about the fire truck tours? Nuki said Rich Bianculli — the city’s so-called “neighborhood prosecutor,” a lawyer who handles code issues — had to practically coach him on how to respond.

“I have to say, ‘I believe the tour leaves at 11,’” Nuki said. “Or, ‘I think you can find the fire truck tours over there.’ I can’t just tell people.”

This isn’t the first time the Frappiers have clashed with a rival on the waterfront. In 2003, their dispute with Dan Libby, whose business offered boat and trolley tours, made the front page of the daily paper. The Frappiers complained that Libby’s hawkers (one guy in particular) were marketing his tours too aggressively on the sidewalk.

“People don’t come to Portland, Maine, to get yelled at,” Bill Frappier told the Portland Press Herald. “We don’t attack people when they’re coming down the street,” Kathy Frappier (then Perkins) said. (The two married and merged their boat and trolley businesses not long after this dispute made news. The Frappiers did not respond to my efforts to reach them for comment by phone and e-mail, and in person.)

Libby, who’s since died, defended his hawkers’ practices and attributed the tension to the increased competition for tourists. That competition has only grown since 2003, along with the increase in cruise ship visits and hotels, as more people come to Portland to experience its renowned restaurant scene and come to realize Casco Bay offers the type of classic Maine coastal experience that’s long drawn tourists to towns like Bar Harbor.

Habash, of the Scenic Route tours, which operates pool-blue vans parked on Commercial Street, has also been in the Frappiers’ crosshairs. He was ticketed by the city before Nuki was. Habash and his wife subsequently took over a souvenir shop across the street, The Blue Lobster, and they sell tickets for their tours there, though Habash still sets up a table on the sidewalk sometimes to do the same, in violation of the code.

“I’ve had city officials thank me for what I’m doing,” he told me. “They know businesses like mine are good for Portland.”

Littlefield agreed. “The city of Portland has kind of been turning a blind eye this whole time,” he said. “It’s good for Portland, so they look the other way.”

That could soon change. Bianculli said the city’s legal team is preparing to present the city council with a plan to license and regulate tour operators. “Pedicabs, taxis, horse-drawn carriages — they all have licenses,” he said. “We should license tour operations, too.”

In addition to imposing some order on the chaos that currently greets tourists along the waterfront, a licensing system would allow administrators to at least know, and possibly screen, the people picking up tourists for bus and boat rides. “We can do background checks on all employees, for instance,” Bianculli said. “Part of this concerns public health and safety, too.”

“Some people will have issues with the proposal,” Bianculli added. “I’m sure the Frappiers will want a clause similar to what we have for food trucks, where a mobile food cart can’t be within a certain distance of a restaurant,” he said. But those battles will most likely play out after this season is over.

In the meantime, the skirmishes on the waterfront continue. Shortly before this issue went to press, I got an e-mail from Nuki’s fiancée, Kate Clark. “Keith was just served paperwork from [the Frappiers’ lawyer] for harassment today,” she wrote. “It’s unreal. This company will do whatever they have to do to get their competitor off of the sidewalk and away from their tourism turf.”

The protection-from-harassment order included four identical notarized statements from Portland Discovery employees saying they “fear for their safety.”

“All of the statements are false,” according to Clark. “It just blows my mind that the employees would write lies for Bill and Kathy. They are all so young, and I don’t think they know the definition of perjury.”

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