People heading to a forum about how to preserve downtown Portland’s local business environment had to walk past vacant storefronts, and some soon to be vacated, to get to the discussion.
Four panelists at a discussion sponsored by the League of Young Voters talked about whether a free-market philosophy or government regulation is the best way to strengthen the local business base.
The conversation happened at the Portland Public Access TV office on Congress Street, mere yards from the locations of three Cadillac Mountain Sports stores, which are closing at the end of March in part because of the ban on chain businesses, and near several other vacant storefronts.
But the speakers weren’t talking about high rents, or competition from retailers in nearby towns, or even the Maine Mall. They were talking about the Portland City Council’s ban on “formula” businesses from certain areas of the city, and whether it should be revised, repealed, or reinforced.
On the free-market side were W. Godfrey Wood, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Roxane Cole, from Ram Harnden Commercial Real Estate and president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.
Seeking strong local regulations were Stacy Mitchell from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle (see “Inside the Box,” by Sara Donnelly, November 9, 2006), and Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design.
Controversy has soaked the law since before it passed the council last November. Opponents of the law say the council acted in haste, working quickly to create a broad rule that was really intended to shut down a Hooters restaurant proposed on Free Street and a Dunkin’ Donuts at Deering Center.
Mitchell and Lindemann discussed carefully considered regulations and safeguards to protect local businesses while Wood and Cole defended their inclination towards market forces and expressed concern that zoning restrictions could send an anti-business message to Portland’s potential tenants.
Wood insisted, “let’s not send a message that Portland is unwelcoming to business.” Lindemann countered, “the playing field is no longer level,” and warned that vendors are encouraged to forge exclusive contracts with big-box companies. “We need protection because we don’t have the deep pockets to fight it,” she said. Cole cited her experience in Freeport, where McDonald’s was forced to comply with rigorous design standards before moving in, as an example of what she felt was fair local control in a free market.
As the council continues its discussions of whether and how to revisit the ordinance, forum speakers expressed their hopes that any changes would include changes to the city’s public transportation, parking, and affordable downtown housing.
Wood called for a “comprehensive zoning plan,” while Lindemann suggested an old plan be dusted off before creating a new one: recalling her involvement in an early-’90s plan to revitalize Portland’s “cultural corridor,” she mused, “I would like to know where that plan is.”