Growing pains

By SARA DONNELLY  |  January 25, 2006

A wild child?
“I’m trying to make the Old Port a more inviting place, a safer place,” says Gorham, who in the 1970s owned the now-defunct Sun Tavern and Oasis Lounge on Middle Street. Gorham’s measure makes the Old Port “safer” by restricting the number of city bar permits available. To open a bar in the Old Port, bar owners must obtain a city bar permit (also called an “overlay license”) as well as a liquor license. In 1996, when the Portland city council created the bar permits, there were 28 available. The number was shaved to 27 shortly thereafter. This month’s council vote reduced the number of licenses to 24; 22 are in use, leaving two available. Plans to create a task force to study Old Port nightlife were also discussed — if made a reality, the task force would be the third in ten years convened by the city to study the area. The council then rejected bar permit applications from the club “Chaotic,” planned for the corner of Fore and Exchange streets, and the bar/restaurant “Right Proper Charlie’s,” on Wharf Street. It will reconsider Chaotic’s application in early February.

But the council’s showdown in the Old Port may shoot the city in the foot.

TWO STORIES Outside + upstairsAccording to Richard Barringer, research professor in planning, development, and the environment at the Muskie School of Public Service in Portland, every thriving city in the country has a nightlife epicenter similar to the Old Port. So nixing growth there might be bad for long-term business.

“In today’s economy, young professionals generate a lot of income and like a lot of activity,” explains Barringer, who says he has never felt afraid after dark in the Old Port. “Nightlife spots tend to congregate in nice places, in cities, where there are aggregations of young people who like to be around each other.”

The question for policymakers here, as everywhere, is when is the party a blight rather than a boon? In Providence, Rhode Island, officials have struggled for more than a decade to police nightlife in the Jewelry District, a downtown cluster of bars, clubs, restaurants, and retail outlets. In Burlington, Vermont, local bar owners managed last spring to oust a rogue liquor-license administrator who they say was “unduly harsh” on bar owners, according to the Vermont alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days, but bar owners continue to complain that the city stonewalls them for liquor licenses and other business permits. Both downtowns are also experiencing their own economic maturations, welcoming high-end development and gentrification.

Justin Alfond, Maine state director of the League of Young Voters, says he’s spoken with many area young people who are concerned about limiting Old Port nightlife.

“I’m just unclear on the connection between reducing the number of [city bar permits] and that having any sort of effect on what I see as very isolated incidences of bad conduct by patrons of these bars,” says Alfond, who was out at night in the Old Port in December. “[Reducing permits] limits the ability for good businesses with good business plans to come into Portland to open more entertainment, more music venues, more options for young people.”

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

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