GET SET TO SQUAT The Fore Street public thrones.
To Portlanders, they're a familiar sight: out-of-town victims potty-dancing around town, pained expressions on their faces, one sip away from having polished off an iced coffee the size of a small child. The militant types tighten their sandal straps and pull their hair back, willing to trek to the nearest facility, dignity intact. Others may plead with hot-dog vendors for a paper cup to squat over, or stroll casually into an alleyway to personalize a brick wall.
The roughly 9 million visitors who will come to Portland this summer will leave not just with happy memories of a lovely city by the sea, with historic cobblestone and locally-brewed ales, say some local retailers: one of their strongest memories will be of exactly how badly they had to pee.
Local retailers say the lack of adequate public bathrooms is the top complaint of both business owners and their customers, and has been for years. But the City Council's passage last month of Portland's 2011 budget, which will raise the property tax 1 percent, close two library branches, and increase the cost of city trash bags, doesn't look promising to groups asking the city for funds, particularly those which involve toilets.
Though public bathrooms may not be a sexy topic at council meetings, they're important to a city like Portland, which depends on tourism as its leading industry.
Peter Erskine, who's owned Mexicali Blues on Moulton Street for 22 years, says a city that economically survives on an influx of cruise ships and tour buses and other visitors needs to do better at providing basic facilities. He says customers are constantly asking where the public restrooms are and recalls the "pained expression" on their faces when he tells them where to go.
"You're saying, 'Go to the parking garage' and they have this vacant look like 'What are you talking about?'" says Erskine. "It's embarrassing to have to say that. We really have very inadequate restroom facilities for a city of our size."
Mayor Nick Mavodones knows about the inadequacies. As operations manager at Casco Bay Lines, he says he sees plenty of tour buses dropping dozens of tourists at the ferry terminal — with no intention of riding anything other than a toilet seat before mounting the bus again.
"We see it at Casco Bay Lines all the time," he says. "It certainly would be beneficial if we had more" public bathrooms.
In addition to the ferry terminal, seasonal downtown restrooms are open from 8 am to 6:30 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the Fore Street and Spring Street parking garages. Bathrooms at City Hall and the public library are available on Congress Street during business hours, and additional restrooms are scattered around the city, though out of reasonable walking distance for those walking around downtown and at risk of wetting their pants. (If you're in need, the Metro bus station on Valley Street and City Hall are other places to, um, go.)
But Erskine and some of his neighbors say those facilities don't meet the need that's existed for years. Erskine says the ferry terminal isn't central enough to the heart of the Old Port to relieve shoppers when the need arises, and telling them to walk to Congress Street isn't an option, especially for the elderly or young children doing a potty dance at their parents' feet.