In the battle for the Portland Developer Championship — fought for the contract to redevelop the city-owned Maine State Pier into a cruise-ship terminal — the score now is 1 to 1. The judges, the city councilors, have decided there will be four more rounds, not counting possible courtroom conflicts.
The heavyweight team of national-class developer Thomas Walsh, world-class politician George Mitchell, and Democratic Governor John Baldacci’s brother (and Mitchell cousin) Robert Baldacci won the first round on July 11. The city council’s Community Development Committee (CDC) voted two to one to recommend that the larger company, Ocean Properties, be given the nod to lease and transform the venerable Commercial Street pier into a $100-million port. The CDC cited Ocean Properties’ financial strength and waterfront experience in other cities. The company is based in Portsmouth.
The competing team is Olympia Companies, run by regional developer Kevin Mahaney. Based in Portland, it has lined up a local cast of architects and engineers. Docks, a hotel, an office building, a ferry terminal, and a park would be developed in both proposals. In both, lease payments and taxes for the city would start out at about $1.5 million a year, and hundreds of jobs would materialize.
Round two took place July 23 at a City Hall “workshop,” when the council ignored the CDC’s recommendation and informally decided on four meetings to let developers, city staff, and the public offer input before the council vote. This decision put Olympia again on an equal footing with Ocean Properties.
“I’m encouraged,” said Jed Rathband, Olympia’s public-relations man.
“The council hit the reset button,” said CDC member Jill Duson.
The Olympia people feel the CDC had been stacked against them, with committed Democrats James Cloutier and Duson, a likely congressional candidate, voting for Ocean Properties. Olympia had threatened a lawsuit when the committee permitted Ocean Properties to alter its proposal after the February deadline.
At the July 23 meeting, the alleged procedural transgression especially rankled the council’s two Greens, Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall, who have already been written off by Ocean Properties: “They’re against us,” said the company’s PR man, Dennis Bailey, before the session.
But other councilors were also uncomfortable with the process and seemed not eager to defer to giant developer Walsh (100 hotels in North America) and universally respected Mitchell, the former Democratic United States Senate majority leader and the celebrated Northern Ireland peacemaker. He would be an investor in the project. Bob Baldacci, the Ocean Properties vice-president for development, slumped in his seat as Mahaney relentlessly portrayed the Portsmouth firm as “outsiders” (Baldacci lives in Portland).
The Olympia team, even if comparatively unsophisticated (Mahaney looks awkward in a pin-striped suit), has played an aggressive game. A lawsuit might allow it play out the clock past the November election, giving the locals a chance to replace disagreeable councilors. Three of the officially nonpartisan council seats will be up for grabs this fall.
The consensus on both sides (and this is shared by some independent political observers) is that Duson, Cloutier, and Donna Carr (another Democrat) will be in Ocean Properties’ corner and Donoghue, Marshall, and Cheryl Leeman (a Republican) will be with Olympia.