Growing pains

After decades spent partying, is the Old Port — gasp — getting old?
By SARA DONNELLY  |  January 25, 2006

OLD PORT GROWS UP Life at Wharf speed.Three years after his nephew was pummeled so hard in the Old Port one night he was sent to the hospital with face fractures, former bar owner Will Gorham, now a city councilor, is leading the charge to clean up Portland’s nightlife.

Gorham believes the Old Port is too dangerous for respectable Portlanders — a conviction he says comes not just from his nephew’s run-in but also from his observations and conversations with district constituents. Gorham’s answer? Limit the number of bars there. His near-religious fervor has the backing of the Portland police and six of nine city councilors.

Thanks largely to Gorham, the city council voted January 18 to further restrict the number of new bars in the area with the highest density of drinking establishments in the city. “We have two Old Ports in this city,” Gorham declared at the council meeting. “One at 8 am that goes through the afternoon and then at 10, 11 o’clock, it becomes the other Old Port. That’s the one I’m trying to correct.”

The area Gorham hopes to “correct” is already smack in the middle of a critical evolution. For nearly four decades, the Old Port was known both as a working waterfront and a nightlife destination — the place your generation and your parents’ generation went to unwind or to get into trouble. It was the rough-and-tumble downtown spot for a deeply working-class small city. But that city has changed, so the Old Port is changing.

One notable harbinger of the Old Port’s future faces the most infamous party corner in the neighborhood. In 2003, the luxury Portland Harbor Hotel opened next to the intersection of Wharf and Union streets, across from the Iguana bar. Almost immediately, the hotel owners complained to the Iguana’s landlord Ed Baumann of noise outside on weekend nights, noise so loud the general manager of the hotel, Gerard Kiladjian, says the hotel has trouble placing guests in any of the 90 rooms facing Wharf. Kiladjian maintains the hotel’s owners knew the area is a nighttime destination but didn’t anticipate the racket it generates.

On the east end of the neighborhood, the Ocean Gateway terminal looms, which, when it is completed as early as 2007, will funnel an estimated 75,000 cruise ship passengers with money to burn into the Old Port every year. Westin Hotel, the $100-million high-end condo development covering a city block between Middle and Fore streets, will contribute its wealthy, out-of-town guests and residents to the mix. With those projects on the horizon, the council seems to have glitz on the brain — in the midst of a debate about reducing the number of bars in the Old Port, councilor Cheryl Leeman asked whether one city bar permit could be set aside for the Westin’s planned lounge. (She was told the council can’t reserve permits for businesses.)

Nightlife in the area a decade ago known unofficially as “the Wild West” is staring down its biggest foe yet — respectability.

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Scenes from Old Port. By Jeff Inglis and Sara Donelly.

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