Portland’s War on Fun
City kills Old Port Festival, sells out the Fourth of July and cracks down on live music
by Chris Busby
If you drew a graph plotting the value of property in Portland and the number of public arts events in the city over the past 25 years, the result would look like a big X. As property values have steadily risen, the number of free or low-cost festivals, outdoor concerts and cultural gatherings has steadily declined.
Through a combination of gentrification and privatization (selling or giving public assets to private companies), city officials and wealthy newcomers have been waging what amounts to a War on Fun, and they’re winning that war. The losers: working-class families, local artisans and musicians, and all the small businesses that benefit when the community gathers to enjoy art and culture.
Here’s a brief overview of what we’ve lost in recent memory:
Deering Oaks Family Festival: Begun in the early 1980s, this wildly popular, multi-day summer gathering was kicked out of town 25 years ago because city officials worried the crowds were harming the oaks’ root systems by walking on the grass. Citrine Resources, a private company formed by a former employee of the local Chamber of Commerce (which itself had run the festival for several years), renamed it Summerfest and moved it to a parking lot at the Maine Mall, which it covered with Astroturf and adorned with potted trees to approximate nature. Attendance during Summerfest’s first weekend, in 1995, was estimated at 150,000 people, but rainy weather dampened turnout the following July and Citrine Resources went bankrupt, leaving the City of South Portland on the hook for about $15,000 in unpaid fees for police and emergency services. When asked in early 1997 if the Chamber of Commerce would revive the festival, the business group’s executive director told the Portland Press Herald it would “take up too much of the chamber’s time and resources that could better be used on projects more directly related to economic development.”
New Year’s Portland: Launched in 1984, Portland’s New Year’s Eve extravaganza drew an average of 10,000 souls to the city every year for its parades (there were two), live music, dance performances, art shows, ice sculptures and fireworks. The party fizzled in 2003, when the nonprofit Maine Arts stopped producing the event and a group of city officials and business leaders took over, transforming it into a kid-friendly gathering that wrapped up by sundown. Mistakes were made, like booking Grammy-winning country act Asleep at the Wheel for a big show at Merrill Auditorium. The band cancelled on short notice, blaming a blizzard in Colorado. As Portland promoter Richard Lawlor noted in a column he wrote for The Bollard in 2005, the city later found out there was no snowstorm in Colorado Springs that day. “We now know there was something fishy about it,” the city’s marketing director told Lawlor. “We lost a lot of money that year.” The event landed in the lap of the Portland Pirates in 2006, but the minor-league hockey team was unable to find sponsors to cover the $60,000 budget, so there was no public celebration to ring in 2007. The team later made an indoor fireworks display at the Civic Center part of its New Year’s Portland promotion, but you had to buy a ticket to the game — and make your kids watch athletes punch each other in the face — to see it.
Alive at Five: Portland’s Downtown District, the non-profit civic organization funded by a special tax assessment on Old Port and downtown properties, started the Thursday evening Alive at Five summer concert series in 2002. The free shows in Monument Square featured a mix of local, regional and national acts, paired with Maine craft beer. Portland Downtown, as the organization is now called, also produced a Weekday Music Series and a Weekday Performance Series (vaudeville acts, belly dancing, hula-hoopin’) in downtown parks every summer, and screened Hollywood movies, preceded by Maine-made shorts, in Congress Square Park. In 2014, Portland Downtown handed operational control of Alive at Five to Crobo LLC, a partnership between two out-of-state concert promoters that owned the nearby State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. The for-profit promoter soon discontinued the free concerts. Portland Downtown also axed its two music and performances series in 2014, and had stopped presenting any events in Congress Square. At the time, city officials — with the encouragement of Portland Downtown’s new board and executive director — were trying to sell the public park to the private-equity firm that owns the adjacent Westin (formerly the Eastland) hotel. They failed, thanks to a citizen uprising, and the nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park now presents free events there. But since then, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department also ended its free summer concert series, which featured standout local acts like Darien Brahms performing in Deering Oaks and on the Western and Eastern Promenades.
July 4th: In 2010, the Portland City Council decided Maine’s largest municipality could no longer afford to pay for a fireworks display on the Eastern Prom to celebrate the Fourth of July — an expense amounting to about $45,000. Once again, a group of private businesses stepped in to produce a popular public event. Called July 4th Portland, the nonprofit was formed by four for-profit companies, including a Chevy dealership, Wright Express (now Wex), the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Red Claws — the minor-league basketball team that was led, at the time, by Jon Jennings. Jennings served as president of July 4th Portland before he was hired to be Portland’s city manager in 2015. July 4th Portland renamed the event the Stars and Stripes Spectacular and paid to have the Portland Symphony Orchestra play along to the pyrotechnics, in addition to appearances by “big name” acts like the now-disgraced Don McLean. Unable to attract sufficient corporate sponsorship after Jennings left, July 4th Portland cratered in 2018, and for the first time in eight years the symphony was not part of the festivities last summer. The city recently formed a new partnership to put on the event, this time with a for-profit promoter called Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, and the PSO is back on the bill. But as we reveal in “Bored on the Fourth of July,” the city has covered up the real public cost for these privately funded celebrations, and the new deal it’s struck with Shamrock fundamentally changes what had always been an egalitarian celebration, turning it into a pay-to-play shindig that gives corporate VIPs and other paying customers preferred access to the event.
The latest assault on public merriment hit Portland on March 5 of this year, when Portland Downtown announced via a press release that it will stop producing the annual Old Port Festival following one final celebration this spring, on June 9. The event, which attracted over 50,000 people with its puppet parade, live music, carnival food, kids’ activities and adult day-drinking, has been happening for the past 46 years.
The press release offered no explanation for this decision. Casey Gilbert, Portland Downtown’s executive director, told the Press Herald in early March that the festival had “achieved its mission,” which she defined as bringing economic development to the Old Port. In the press release, the event’s mission is described as “celebrating and showcasing local art, music, and culture.”
Gilbert’s explanation doesn’t make much sense. As anyone who’s visited the Old Port this century can attest, the district has been thriving for decades, packed full of shops and restaurants and bars that attract visitors from around the world by car and cruise ship. If the festival’s mission was solely to drum up business in a once rundown part of town, it could have been wrapped up back when Bill Clinton was in the White House. And if its mission is actually to showcase local art and culture, why stop doing that? Portland Downtown has already cut almost all of its other arts programming, and other than buskers on the Old Port’s sidewalks, no one has stepped up to fill the void there.
Based on interviews with dozens of stakeholders, including city officials and the local business owners who fund Portland Downtown, it seems clear that the organization not only doesn’t want to produce the festival anymore — it doesn’t want anyone else to keep it going. There’s no indication that Portland Downtown reached out to anyone at City Hall, any fellow arts or civic organizations, its own general membership or the public to seek ways to improve or sustain the Old Port Festival in future years.
Gilbert declined to be interviewed by phone or in person about her organization’s decision. At her request, I sent her my questions via e-mail, and on four subsequent occasions (three times by e-mail and once when I saw her on the street) she said she was working on her responses and would send them before our deadline. The day before that deadline, Gilbert finally provided Portland Downtown’s response: the same March 5 press release they sent out to announce the festival’s end; nothing more.
I also contacted five members of the organization’s board, including chairwoman Kim Volk, a top executive with the Portland firm Aurora Financial, and treasurer Denine Leeman, a recent past chair of the board who works as the Chief Operations Officer for East Brown Cow Management, a major landlord and developer in the Old Port. None of the board members responded.
Portland’s War on Fun is at odds with the boasts of its politicians and tourism promoters, who trumpet the city’s status as the state’s arts and cultural hub. While that may be true for those able to afford symphony tickets and thousand-dollar landscape paintings, it’s a lie to the masses of Mainers whose tastes are more plebeian, like the throngs who pack the Old Port every year to eat fried dough, have a couple drinks and maybe shake a little booty on a sunny June afternoon. For them, the party’s over.
Ultimately, Portland is losing more than just good times. Arts and cultural gatherings are among the few remaining occasions when large groups of locals mingle in person. In this age of virtual realities and digital networking, public events like the Old Port Festival are crucial to creating and maintaining a genuine sense of community among the populace. As journalist Johann Hari documents in his 2018 book Lost Connections, the lack of this sense of community — the feeling that you’re part of a larger social group whose members care that you exist — is among the chief causes of depression and anxiety, which have risen to pandemic levels in modern America. In turn, these plagues fuel other scourges, like drug addiction and domestic violence. Thus, a city that stamps out public fun does so at the peril of its own people.
White trash party
Among the many locals disappointed to hear of the Old Port Festival’s demise is Joe Soley, the once notorious landlord whose purchase of numerous Old Port buildings in the 1980s helped to both revitalize the district and give it the rowdy reputation it’s only recently begun to shake. The festival is “the kind of event that makes a town hopeful,” Soley told me. He hopes a new group will form to keep the event going, perhaps on a smaller, more manageable scale.
Although Soley often gets the credit (or the blame) for the Old Port’s transformation over the past half century, two other significant developers preceded him: Henry “Hank” Willette, who began buying and renovating properties there in 1967, and Frank Akers, who did the same in the 1970s and ’80s. Both have passed away.
Sonia and Jock Robertson took over a restaurant-supply business on Exchange Street in 1972 and later transformed it into The Whip and Spoon, a kitchenware shop that eventually relocated nearby to a much larger space on Commercial Street and opened a second location near the Maine Mall. The Robertsons are among the few remaining founders of the Old Port Festival, which officially began in 1973.
“You may have heard several stories about what the origins of the Old Port Festival are,” Sonia Robertson said. “One popular theory is that it was the celebration of the end of winter and all these retailers managed to survive. My personal recollection is that it was started to let Portland and the surrounding communities know the Old Port was a safe place and it was OK to come down. … There were still people who were afraid to come to downtown Portland.” The festival was created for both purposes, she said.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games for the first wave of Old Port merchants. “We were working 18 hours a day,” Sonia Robertson recalled. “We were hanging on by our fingernails.”
Joe Redman opened his menswear shop, Joseph’s, on Fore Street, in 1974, and also helped get the festival off the ground. At the time, “Congress Street had fallen down,” he said, as local shoppers were siphoned off by the Maine Mall, which opened three years prior. Fore Street was “the edge of the Old Port, in the sense that Commercial Street was still old and undeveloped, original.” The area wasn’t dangerous, but “possibly you didn’t venture too much on Commercial Street after 8 o’clock at night,” said Redman. After all, back then, most people who weren’t fishermen or dock workers literally had no business being on that street.
These days, most critics of the Old Port Festival cite one of two factors that they blame for the erosion of the event’s original spirit: heavy drinking or a shift away from booze in favor of family-friendly activities. It’s a chicken-or-egg type of question that’s impossible to definitively answer, but it’s an indisputable fact that some of the hardest partying in the early days was done by the retailers and restaurateurs themselves the night before the big parade.
When it started, the festival was “really aimed at families,” Sonia Robertson said. But “the night before the Old Port Festival there was always a huge party for all involved. The last one was in the Thomas Block,” she recalled, referring to a large building on the water side of Commercial Street. “It was quite a party. The less said in print about that, the better.”
Nancy Lawrence opened her artisan handbag shop, Portmanteau, in the Old Port in 1979. She has fond, if blurry, memories of a pre-festival bash held on Newbury Street, in a building that had formerly been home to the synagogue of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh. The theme of the party was, fittingly, the Renaissance. “So everybody in the Old Port dressed up in Renaissance clothes,” Lawrence recalled. “The price of admission was a bottle of champagne and a basket of strawberries, and that was all the food that there was.” Clouds, a band featuring singer Andrea Re and keyboard player Charlie Brown, played on what had been the synagogue’s altar, she said. (Neither Re nor Brown recalls the gig.) The party was a blast, but on the morning of the festival “many merchants just weren’t on the top of their game,” Lawrence said with a laugh.
A lot of champagne corks were popping in the Old Port back then. Lawrence said the Robertsons started a festival-day tradition of visiting all the businesses that had opened within the past year to welcome them with champagne and flowers. There was a real feeling of camaraderie among business owners in the district. They’d talk shop during happy hour at the Seamen’s Club (on Fore Street, where the Irish pub Bull Feeney’s is now located) and swap gossip at the bank when they dropped off the day’s deposit.
“That camaraderie does not exist anymore,” Lawrence said. “Even 10 years ago, we used to do bank deposits. We don’t do bank deposits anymore.” The bank and the bar “were two pivotal places you would have conversations.”
The perception that the Old Port Festival was a drunken bacchanal in its early days is distorted by our 21st century prudishness about public drinking. In the ’70s and ’80s, the so-called “open container” law allowed people to carry and even sip from opened cans or bottles containing alcoholic beverages — a practice that seems almost barbaric today.
“Everybody back then was worried that it was a booze fest, and it was in the ’80s, because it was legal to drink on the street,” said Shaun McCarthy, who opened his bar, Dock Fore, on Fore Street, in 1984. “It wasn’t legal to buy a beer in a bar and walk out with it, but people were driving in from Gray/New Gloucester with a 12-pack” — he paused to correct himself, and chuckled. “They didn’t have 12-packs then. They were coming in with a case of beer and putting it in a cooler in the car, and they’d just keep going back and walking around and enjoying the day.”
Some pioneering Old Port retailers cite a third factor that undercut the spirit of the original gathering: professional organization. Once city bureaucrats and civic organizations like Portland Downtown and its precursors took over the planning and operation of the festival, its freewheeling, grassroots character withered. “There were a lot of different rules, and the Old Port has never done well with rules and excessive changes,” Sonia Robertson said. As an example, she added, “When businesses started being charged to have a table in front of their store, that was unreasonable.”
Musician Phineas Martin thought the festival would be a boon for Buckdancer’s Choice, the musical-instrument shop he opened on Moulton Street in August of 1976. On the first morning of the Old Port Festival in 1977, “We figured, OK, we’ve got a storefront, so we can set up tables in front of the store and sell shit there,” he recalled. Then “some guy showed up and started putting tables up in front of my store.” The guy informed Martin that he’d rented the space. “And that’s when I saw the writing on the wall: Oh, somebody is fucking this thing up real good.”
Earlier that decade, Martin had been enthusiastic about the festival. He’d rigged a hammered dulcimer with straps so he could play it while marching in the parade with a string band. Back then, the musicians didn’t need a stage. “We just played on street corners,” Martin said. “I don’t even know if we passed the hat or anything, we just wanted to play because it was fun.”
Tim Emery, a fellow musician who owns Buckdancer’s with Martin, has a slightly different take. Bands he was in used to play the festival stage sponsored by country radio station WPOR, and they were paid for their time and talent. “Then Portland Downtown got involved,” Emery said, and bands were expected to play for free, just for the exposure of being in front of a big crowd. “I said, ‘I’ve been playing this town for twenty years. I don’t need exposure, I need a hundred dollars in my pocket.’”
Emery won’t miss the festival, which he said has devolved into a “frat boy drunk fest.” He and Martin moved their store out of the Old Port decades ago, and now do business in Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood. The Old Port Festival is “losing the sense of locale and community by kowtowing to all these flatlanders,” said Emery.
“It got too family-friendly,” Martin said. “You don’t need petting zoos and rock-climbing walls. Save that for the Yarmouth Clam Festival. You don’t need Smokey’s Greater Shows down there doing that shit,” he added, referring to the Maine company that operates carnival rides at county fairs.
Redman, the dapper proprietor of Joseph’s, had a similar critique. The festival “became a commercial source of revenue for the city, and with that the quality of the concept was modified — I think, in a negative way.” The early festivals “had an older crowd,” Redman said. “It had a lot of families, and it devolved from there to, you know, hot dogs in the street, pizza, beer, and less art, less interesting music. … When we first did it, it was local artists. Most of them were fairly accomplished. And it devolved into people-could-sell-anything, basically, and the quality of the artwork that was sold was some good, but mostly not great, and the other stuff that was sold could be labeled junk.
“But,” Redman added, “who’s to say it isn’t fun for some little kid just growing up and seeing it, you know? So, unfortunately, it’s not an easy thing to criticize, although I am glad … that it’s stopping.”
I asked Redman if he thought there was a class distinction at play here. “I don’t want to say that [the festival] has attracted the wrong people,” he replied, “but [it’s] attracted a much more party-oriented group than people that are interested in seeing artwork or hearing really good music. So I’m not saying they’re bad people. It’s just they have different interests.”
Justin O’Connor — proprietor of The King’s Head, a restaurant and bar on Commercial Street, and Jager, a craft beer pub on Wharf Street — was more blunt. He decried the “white trash fair mentality” on display during the festival. “It’s disgusting,” he said. During a festival a few years ago, he said he saw five separate fistfights erupt simultaneously on the cobblestones outside Jager, as outmatched cops scrambled from one to another to break them up. Like some other bars in the district, Jager closes early on festival day. A few places don’t open at all.
Someone shared joke with me, off the record, that gets told almost every year as the hordes descend on the area: “If you ever wanted to rob a house in Windham, today would be the day to fuckin’ do it.” Ironically, rising rents in Portland have made outlying towns like Windham, Gorham and Westbrook the only affordable home for the sales clerks, servers, dishwashers and other low-wage workers who actually keep the Old Port running during the other 364 days of the year.
All war is class war
As I spoke with more Old Port business owners about the festival, a pattern soon emerged. Nearly all the restaurateurs and retailers selling high-end goods were glad to see the festival die. Bar owners and merchants selling more affordable stuff felt just the opposite — some said the festival is the only reason their business is still alive.
“There’s no way I would still be in business without the Old Port Fest,” said Thirsty Pig owner Allison Stevens. “There’s no way I would have made it through all the winters I’ve made it through without getting that big [infusion of money] to help me get into the summer.”
Ed Stebbins and his pal Richard Pfeffer opened their pioneering craft beer pub, Gritty McDuff’s, on Fore Street, in 1988. The festival “kinda kickstarted us into summer,” said Stebbins. “Financially it was huge, huge.” Stebbins said he’d bring his son James to the festival every year to watch the parade. “It was a big father-and-son event,” he said. But in the 1990s, “it seemed like the people who organized it kinda lost interest,” he added. “The parade was underwhelming. … Then it became more of a drinking competition, and I think that’s what’s led to where we are now.”
“It’s a very big day for us,” said Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney’s — revenue-wise, it’s second only to a certain Irish holiday. “We think it’s a lot of fun,” Fuss said of the festival. “It’s honestly a little sloppy at the end, but that’s just because, you know, you have a lot of people day-drinking. But it’s not out of hand, it’s not unsafe.”
Fuss has served on Portland Downtown’s board in the past, and has seen firsthand how class distinctions divide the neighborhood, especially on festival day. “The line is really drawn … from sort of the higher-end restaurants who don’t really want to be a part of [the festival], and the lower-end or bar-oriented restaurants, and those do participate and it’s among their busiest days of the year. So it’s sort of drawn on class lines, if you will.”
Gudrun Cobb owns Uncommon Paws, a shop on Exchange Street that sells “upscale, all-natural pet products,” yet her store does exceptionally well during the event, bringing in at least twice the revenue of a typical spring Sunday. More than the money, Cobb said she’ll miss the festive atmosphere and the people most of all.
Lawrence, of Portmanteau, always loses money due to the festival, but she takes a broader view of its benefits to the district. Referring to the bar owners with whom she’s shared Wharf Street over the decades, she said, “If all of these guys make enough money that they can enter the season strong, clean, have the money to fix whatever needs fixing and do that stuff, then I’m fine with it, because they haven’t always made a lot of money, and coming out of winter can be really hard for them.”
And though few festival-goers come into her shop, “I used to say, ‘If fifty thousand people are walking past my display window, can it be a bad thing?’” Lawrence said. “They’re not buying that day because they’re doing other things. Will they come back because they wouldn’t normally be walking by my door? Maybe, maybe not.”
“Well,” I said, “certainly the chances are higher than if they weren’t here in the first place.”
“Right,” Lawrence responded.
Like her neighbor, Stebbins, Lawrence sensed that the festival’s character suffered when it became professionalized. “At some mid-point in the festival history … it got farmed out to a producer, so it wasn’t something happening within the neighborhood,” she said. “Back then I remember saying, ‘This used to be something we made happen, and now it happens to us.’”
The outside producer that ran the event in the mid-1990s was Citrine Resources — the same for-profit outfit that went belly up running the Astroturf Summerfest at the mall. Portland Downtown eventually ended its contract with the company and took on those responsibilities itself.
McCarthy, the proprietor of Dock Fore, helped organize the festival before it was “farmed out” to the pros. It wasn’t easy, but he looks back on the experience with pride. “We’d have a meeting here [at the bar] that was open to everybody,” he told me. “I went around the entire Old Port and invited everybody. We probably had 80 people in here.”
The big decision on the agenda that year was whether to move the festival from Saturday to Sunday, in part to keep the boozing in check. “It got a little heated, people arguing one way or the other,” he recalled, but ultimately the group agreed to the change — even though some stakeholders, McCarthy included, took a financial hit. “When it was on Saturday, it’d be busy from eleven in the morning till one in the morning. And the first year that it switched to just being on a Sunday, I can remember at six o’clock looking around and there were three people in here.” Even so, McCarthy added, “I pay for my state and city liquor licenses with the proceeds of that day. So it’s a big day.”
The contrast between the inclusive, democratic planning process McCarthy and his neighbors engaged in and the way Portland Downtown handled this year’s fateful decision could not be more stark. “The most frustrating part of this is that there has been no explanation,” McCarthy said. “All there are are rumors. … I haven’t had one customer or person that I know say they think it’s a good idea that they’ve stopped this festival. Everyone is just like, ‘What happened? Why are they doing this?’”
McCarthy, Lawrence and others find the edict to kill the festival particularly puzzling given the efforts Portland Downtown has made in recent years to expand and improve it, including last year’s decision to (finally) allow merchants and restaurateurs to set up tables on the sidewalk outside their business free of charge.
“To me, the bottom line is we’re forced to subsidize this Portland Downtown District,” said McCarthy. “They’re supposed to work for us, and they’re just dictating what’s gonna happen. That’s not the way government is supposed to work.”
McCarthy and I first discussed the festival a few days before a meeting he’d scheduled with Gilbert, Portland Downtown’s executive director, in the hope of getting some answers. “There was no explanation and there is no one reason,” he said when we met again. According to McCarthy, Gilbert said the nonprofit’s board had a “lengthy discussion” about the festival during their “annual retreat.” “She said the vote [to kill it] was not unanimous, but it was final.” Adding insult to injury, it appears that two or possibly even three important board seats — those reserved for representatives of the retail, restaurant and/or hospitality industries — were vacant when this decision was made. “So basically the decision was made by landowners, property owners,” said McCarthy.
Fuss said that about five years ago, when he was on the board, Portland Downtown’s bylaws were rewritten to make the board “more property-owner centric,” effectively disempowering the small-business owners who lease space from them. The list of current board members on Portland Downtown’s website confirms this: it’s dominated by representatives of companies that own, manage or invest in downtown real estate. The only small-business owner among the 15 members listed is Sarah Martin, proprietor of The Bar of Chocolate Café, on Wharf Street (Martin was among the board members I contacted who stayed mum). Chris Cummings, regional manager of the hippie-clothing company Mexicali Blues, said he recently joined the board, but does not support its decision to discontinue the event. Cummings said the festival has been great for the store, which occupies two commercial spaces across from one another on Moulton Street, and hopes it can be continued in some fashion.
The most noticeable change in the Old Port over the past five years has been a significant increase in the number of corporate chains setting up shop there. The comparatively grungy Starbucks (which now has two Old Port locations) and Urban Outfitters were the crest of a wave that has since swelled to include FatFace, Anthropologie, Athleta (a brand of Gap), West Elm and Ethan Allen. These newcomers have two characteristics in common that may help explain the board’s fatal vote: they pay high rents and sell high-end goods that typically don’t sell during the Old Port Festival.
Both Lawrence and McCarthy said Gilbert told them the decision to end the event was informed by post-festival “survey data” her organization received from Old Port businesses. If the decision was made by comparing the number of businesses that lose money during the festival to the number that financially benefit, it’s quite possible the recent invasion of chains tipped the scales against the interests of small, independently owned enterprises. “I personally don’t think that the city should have any events that hurt businesses,” said Redman. “It shouldn’t be a balance of, ‘Oh, this group is hurt and this group is helped.’ It should be an equal playing field.”
Fuss shares the suspicion that Portland Downtown doesn’t want the festival to continue under new management. “I think they wanted to kill it,” he said. In past years, the festival earned the organization about $30,000 after expenses were paid (the City of Portland contributes police and sanitation services valued at roughly the same amount, at no charge to Portland Downtown). The decision not to charge Old Port businesses for sidewalk space put a dent in revenues last year, Fuss said, and the radio stations that sponsor stages for live music have pared back their contributions, partly because they no longer get as much promotional money from record labels. “So what was a cash-positive event turned into a break-even or cash-negative event,” said Fuss, “and with the amount of staffing and effort that has to go into it, it was probably difficult for them to put it on.”
Gilbert told the Press Herald that money was not a factor in the decision to end the festival. The March 5 press release claims other programs and events will be “enhanced” as a result of the festival’s end, including the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Monument Square and the Summer Cadet Program, run in partnership with the Portland Police Department, that puts more law-enforcement officers on the streets.
Fuss said the organization is abandoning its mission. “It’s critical for a downtown area to be vibrant,” he said. “That’s actually the mission statement for Portland Downtown, is vibrancy. And if you eliminate the major, named, brand-equity festival — in fact, the largest gathering of people in the state of Maine — what are you doing to vibrancy in downtown Portland?”
Fuss was “completely blindsided” by the board’s decision and, even after speaking with Gilbert, he still has no clear idea why it was made. But he did note that “we are one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the country. We’re putting up new hotels at a rate of about two a year at this point in time.”
Numerous business owners, including Fuss and Stebbins, said there’s already been some discussion about forming a new organization to keep the Old Port Festival alive. Making Portland Downtown more democratic or responsive to its constituents seems like a lost cause. That kind of change would have to happen from within, “but remember, they’re in power, so I don’t see that happening from within,” said Fuss. “That would have to come from the outside. The [City] Council would have to do it, and they would have to think that the business-improvement district has not fulfilled its mission to its stakeholders.”
Mayor Ethan Strimling did not return a call seeking comment.
City Councilor Belinda Ray, who’s running for mayor this year and whose Council district includes the Old Port, is satisfied with Portland Downtown’s handling of the matter. “I wouldn’t say the city is better off without it,” Ray told me. “Obviously it’s a really fun event that draws a lot of people. It’s something I enjoyed as a kid, driving from Damariscotta for the festival.
“But I understand,” Ray continued. The board members of Portland Downtown “feel it’s served its purpose. It was originally put in place to revitalize that area.”
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who represents the West End and is also running for Strimling’s job, said he’s requested that someone from Portland Downtown appear before the Council’s Economic Development Committee “to kind of explain the change.” Thibodeau has already spoken with Gilbert about the decision, but he still can’t explain why the festival is being discontinued.
“I think the concerns that were raised regarding the impact on local business, in terms of shopping, was part of the reason for the change,” he told me. “I don’t know if it’s the carnival vendors, the fried dough coming in and taking over the streets and folks not being able to access the shops. From that perspective, there were some concerns.”
Still, said Thibodeau, “if they are going to end it, we need a good indication of why.”
GREETINGS, READERS! You can help us publish much more independent local journalism by subscribing to Mainer today at mainernews.com. Thanks for reading!