Thursday, February 5, 2009

Maine: On the Waterfront (in Portland)

Last month the developers tapped to build a controversial hotel and office complex on Portland's city-owned Maine State Pier pulled out, the morning after my public presentation of the background to the deal (the timing was surely a coincidence.)

Now Portland will have to return to the drawing board, rethinking how it might best ensure that our port possesses at least one large deep-water berth. Several readers have expressed an interest in my past reporting on relevant waterfront issues here. So....

The following stories provide a primer on the shortcomings of the past decade of waterfront planning in Maine's largest city:

First, my cover story in the local alternative monthly, The Bollard, on how the city managed to build a new cruise ship terminal without (a) doing a study to determine the economic benefits of such an investment and (b) building a cruise ship berth, so the ships could actually use the facility. An examination of evidence suggests the actual benefits of the cruise ship industry are far less than its proponents have been claiming. (The story starts on page 14; a sidebar on the city's cruise ship partners on page 20, and a companion story on the container port on page 21.)

Next: the new terminal is now losing Portland taxpayers over $300,000 a year, but that number would skyrocket to nearly half a million if its only real customer -- The Cat ferry service to Nova Scotia -- were to cease operations. As this story shows, high-speed ferries like The Cat are extremely vulnerable to changes in fuel prices. (Fortunately, the fall in oil prices that accompanied the global financial crisis has saved The Cat for now; it's returning this season.) The city will continue to lose money until they build a $7 million deep-water berth for the terminal.

The Cat used to tie up at the city-owned International Marine Terminal, Maine's principal container port. This Working Waterfront story shows how IMT's dependency on the pulp and paper industry led to a suspension of operations nearly a year ago.

(After this story came out, Maine Port Authority director John Henshaw claimed that IMT had not seen merely "modest growth" in container traffic over the past decade. With the help of Maine's "right to know" laws, I procured the actual data from the city: as I reported here, IMT actually saw a modest decline over the decade, undermining part of the city's rationale for moving passenger operations to the eastern waterfront.)

Part of the reason the Maine State Pier development has been so controversial is that no other property owners are allowed to build such things on the waterfront, on account of zoning rules designed to protect the working waterfront. As my 2007 Bollard feature showed, such a development would have knock-on effects for the entire waterfront (the feature starts on page 8.) Note also that in this story, Ocean Properties' Bob Baldacci admits that his company had been trying to build a hotel on another property before bringing the idea to the city. (In other words, the Maine State Pier project has been developer driven from the outset.)

Most Portlanders probably know that Bob Baldacci is the governor's brother; they may not realize that he is also closely related to his Maine State Pier partner, former U.S. Senate majority leader (and current Middle East peace envoy) George Mitchell. This piece in Working Waterfront sketches out the genealogical relationships between these families and major development deals proposed in the state.

Last year, Baldacci and other Ocean Properties officials. family members, and hirelings also made campaign donations to campaigns of several city council candidates who subsequently supported their bid to develop the pier. (Tracing their past relationships with city councilors is now impossible because the city clerk has destroyed campaign finance disclosures prior to 2006) Baldacci is a member of the team seeking to buy the Portland Press-Herald and the rest of Maine's largest newspaper chain.

As the city considers future developments on the eastern waterfront, they might wish to draw on the area's enormous historical significance. As this Bollard feature shows (pp. 18-25), the area is arguably the most historic in all of Portland.

Finally, for those writing the fishing sector off: be aware that many experts say U.S. fisheries policy has finally turned the corner. In the long-term, we may be one of the world's few sources of high-end fish.

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