Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maine: the truth about cruise ships

A little over a year ago I reported that the city of Portland, Maine had commissioned a $20 million cruise ship terminal without ever commissioning a study to determine what the benefit of cruise ship tourism actually is. Then-port director Jeff Monroe often claimed cruise ship passengers spent $200 a day; others estimated $103. Sources I spoke to predicted the number would be closer to $65.

After the piece came out, the city finally ordered a study and they released the results today. Cruise ship passengers spend $80.51 a day while on Portland port calls, according to a University of Maine study. That's less than half what Mr. Monroe has claimed, and 22% below previous assumptions. Cruise ship tourism, it turns out, is indeed significantly smaller than previously assumed.

Sadly, you'd never know this from today's Portland Press Herald article, which gives the impression that these figures refute (rather than confirm) the notion that the economic benefit of cruise ships have been over-hyped. (It also failed to address the long-standing concern that the people of Portland have invested in a terminal when most passenger dollars probably aren't spent in the City of Portland at all.) Given the ample paper trail on these points -- months ago I posted an entire collection just of my own reports on the topic -- it's upsetting that our newspaper of record is unable or unwilling to report the story properly.

I'm headed on an overseas assignment shortly, but am talking to sources and will be doing a short, non-blogospheric report for Working Waterfront before I leave.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lobster War: does a "cooling off" period make sense?

After last week's lobsterman-on-lobsterman shooting on Matinicus, the Maine Department of Marine Resources moved to close the island's lobster fishery for two weeks: a "cooling off period."

Thankfully, DMR has backed down, agreeing to reopen the fishery on July 27th, but one wonders how such a decision ever got made in the first place. Punishing an entire community for the actions of one of its members is problematic, of course, but it's also unclear how this policy could ever have achieved its aim. If other island fishermen indeed needed to "cool off," depriving them of their livelihood and occupation at the height of the lobster season and leaving them stewing away in the village together would seem counter-productive.

It's been a tough year for Maine lobstermen. Prices collapsed last fall, exacerbated (oddly enough) by the Icelandic banking collapse. They remain are so low some lobstermen have started pulling their traps and there's been an expensive conversion to sinking lines to protect Atlantic right whales. Apparently tensions are mounting in some areas of the coast. Only last week, I had a call from the Lincoln County News seeking historical context for an apparent trap cutting war on the Damariscotta River. Disputes on the water, I said, rarely escalated to shootings. Matinicus' Chris Young was shot in the neck five days later.

Image (c) 2009 Colin Wooodard

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lobster Coast: now on Kindle

My exploration of Maine's culture and history, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, is now available in an Amazon Kindle edition.

Lobster Coast has been a New England Bestseller -- and a Maine Sunday Telegram #1 Bestseller -- in both its hardcover and paperback editions. As of this writing, its still ranked 16,021 among Kindle books, so I'm not planning my retirement just yet.

I'm actually giving a talk on the themes of Lobster Coast in Stonington, Maine tomorrow night. In September I'll be speaking in the Portland suburb of Scarborough, which chose the book as its 2009 Community Read. (My speaking schedule is always available on the website.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lobster Coast Talk: Stonington, Maine July 23

For all of you down in Hancock County, Maine, I'm giving a talk on the Past, Present, and Future of Coastal Maine at the Fisherman's Friend Restaurant in Stonington July 23rd at 6:30pm. It's a fundraiser for the Penobscot East Resource Center, the innovative community fisheries organization founded by Ted Ames and his wife, Robin Alden. Tickets are $20 at the door with the proceeds going to a cause my reporting has suggested to be excellent, worthy, and right-headed.

The talk is largely based on my book, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (Viking: 2004), a New England bestseller that some (my parents mostly) have been so kind as to call the "owner's manual to the Maine coast." I'll also be talking about themes from my first book on the marine environmental crisis, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas.

For questions about the event, call the center at (207) 367-2708.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Testing Maine newspapers' independence

Here in Maine, the new owners of the state's largest newspaper chain have created a high-profile test of their newsroom's independence. Early results give some cause for optimism.

On Wednesday, Tom Bell of the Press Herald broke the story that his new boss, owner/editor Richard Connor, is seeking tax breaks from the city of Portland to stay in the city now that he's sold the newspaper's headquarters. Connor had previously said he'd be moving most staff to South Portland. It is unclear why a cash-strapped city should wish to help a private company stay on this side of the harbor, one observer notes, nor how begging for tax breaks might effect the paper's coverage of other city hall issues.

According to Bell, the story was not made public by Connor, but rather discovered by Bell while reporting City Hall. It's therefore encouraging that Connor allowed the piece to be published, suggesting he understands and values newsroom Independence . Earlier in the week, Bell also filed a story that begins to explore critical questions about Maine State Pier, an issue likely to place city officials in an unfavorable light just as Connor is looking for handouts from them.

Unfortunately, Mr. Connor has set up a number of other potential conflicts of interest. His former business partner and current consultant Bob Baldacci was a major figure in the as-yet-to-be-fully-explored Maine State Pier process. And, as Media Mutt notes, the board of Connor's Maine Today Media (which owns the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Waterville Morning Sentinel) includes figures with numerous potential conflicts.

Media watchers will want to keep a close eye on what happens next.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maine State Pier repairs: Press-Herald digs deeper

An update from yesterday's post on the actual state of Portland, Maine's controversial Maine State Pier: Tom Bell has a fresh report in today's Press Herald asking many of the questions that should have been posed long ago.

This is what newspapers of record are supposed to do, week-in and week-out. Perhaps Southern Maine residents can take heart that the Press Herald's new owner will turn Maine's largest paper around.

If you're new to Portland waterfront issues, here's a backgrounder I assembled this winter. There are some additional documents on Maine State Pier at this later post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Maine State Pier never in serious crisis after all?

For those in Maine who've been following Portland's the Maine State Pier saga, there are some new developments that may give you pause.

As you probably remember, the public has been told that the city-owned pier is in desperate need of repairs and that the best way to secure them is to lease the facility to private hotel developers for the next 75 years. The plan was initially put forward by Ocean Properties -- then represented by the governor's brother, Bob Baldacci, and his cousin, former Sen. George Mitchell -- who essentially offered to repair the pier -- and pay a very modest rent -- in exchange for being able to build on it.

Buried at the bottom of Tom Bell's story in Saturday's Portland Press Herald is the news that the city-owned pier isn't actually in that bad shape after all.

The city apparently finally got around to having someone dive under the pier and they found that its "structural support and pilings are in relatively good condition," according to Bell's piece. Five of six pilings had no erosion at all. "It's in remarkably good condition, and for the most part quite capable for the loads it is designed for," engineer Wayne Duffett is quoted as saying.

This raises important questions that the Press Herald is too polite to ask: how is it that the city is only properly assessing the actual condition of the pier after spending years trying to negotiate a deal to privatize-and-repair it? Why has the public been told we need to come up with $20 to $25 million to save the pier when, in fact, city officials had no basis for making these estimates? Who would have benefited from the situation had the development deals gone through and did they have a role in the creation of the over-inflated repair estimates?

(Recall also that the city commissioned a $20 million cruise ship terminal (which, as yet, has no berth for cruise ships) without ever commissioning a study to determine what the economic benefit of cruise ship tourism actually is.)

The Press Herald has a new owner; one would hope it will now be posing these questions, not leaving them for freelancers like myself to ask. [An update]

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Travel Advisory: holidays in Chernobyl

Some briefs from the world of travel:

For those who've done it all, today's Times of London travel section features a piece on day trips to Chernobyl. A guide assures that it is perfectly safe, only "two or three" tourists a become contaminated each year.

Ireland's tourism authorities have been embarrassed by what appears to have been an irrational decision by border guards at Dublin airport to refuse entry to three young American backpackers on the grounds that their credit cards were insufficient proof of their ability to provide for themselves. (They used them to pay for $1800 tickets home.) Global Post has the story.

The Associated Press reports today on Hawaii's desire to become the base for rocketplanes, which would carry paying passengers into space and back down to, say, Japan in just 45 minutes. Package price: $200,000.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Oak Island Treasure Mystery : a 19th century hoax?

Buried treasure enthusiasts may be interested in my column on the famous Oak Island "money pit" across the water in Nova Scotia in the current issue of Working Waterfront. The article airs the case for this -- perhaps the most famous "buried treasure" mystery of them all -- having been a 19th century hoax gone wild.

As others have noted before me, the legends surrounding Oak Island -- rehashed in a shelf's worth of books -- bear many of the characteristics of those in circulation in New England and New York in the 18th and 19th centuries, when thousands were afflicted with treasure digging mania, digging up islands, fields, and hillsides from Manhattan to Mount Desert.

The piece has only been out for two days, but I'm already getting mail from Oak Island cognoscenti. One, who runs this website, notes that technically the current owners of Oak Island don't yet have permission to resume digging and, due to last month's provincial elections in Nova Scotia, may have difficulty securing it. (Nova Scotia's Treasure Trove Act -- yes, there really is one -- allegedly has enemies within the new ruling party.)

Perhaps the treasure really is defended by evil spirits.