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.
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.
According 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.”
Portland’s police force claims the party in the OP on its busiest nights is stretching the department thin. That, judging from Gorham’s hearty congratulations from Police Chief Tim Burton immediately following last week’s council vote, may be the real reason the councilor is in such a rush to put retail where clubs could be. (Gorham, a real estate agent by trade, has been a bail commissioner for 13 years, hence his close relationship with the cops.)
Burton testified at the council meeting that the Old Port generates around 15 percent of the city’s total calls for service annually, more than any other neighborhood in Portland. According to police records, calls for service in the Old Port have risen in the past three years despite a reduction in the number of bars there — which means Gorham’s plan might not cap crime at all. From 2002 to 2003, bars in the Old Port generated 148 police calls, from 2003 to 2004, 171, from 2004 to 2005, 211. Of those 530 total calls for service — including fights, assaults, and weapons violations — more than 80 percent were for incidents in the street, usually just after closing at one in the morning.
A troubled teen?
Crime and tension in other parts of the city, Deputy Police Chief Joseph Loughlin believes, have made the Old Port at night a destination for drug dealers, thieves, and criminals. Three years ago, a police tactical enforcement unit of between nine and 14 officers was assigned exclusively to the Old Port on weekends to address the crime there, though the Phoenix didn’t see any cruisers or uniformed police in the Fore Street and Wharf Street areas at closing time last Friday night when a one-punch fight on Wharf Street left a man’s face covered in blood. (See “Missing in Action.”) Whether something like this is scary enough to keep visitors away from the Old Port is up to opinion — at least 50 people smoking cigarettes and chatting in the street seemed not to be bothered enough to move along.
A more serious event affected councilor Gorham’s family when his adult nephew was sent to the emergency room in 2003 after he was allegedly attacked by two men in the Old Port. Gorham believes the men came out of one of the bars.
But a lot of young people who frequent the Old Port at night say they feel safe and don’t want things to change. Gorham’s 24-year-old niece, Erin Mussenden, who last Friday night was out at Amigo’s on the corner of Dana and Wharf streets, believes her uncle means well but wonders whether the city shouldn’t just clamp down on the trouble bars instead of limiting the number of new licenses available.
“We haven’t talked about [his policy], but I have told him about some of the stuff that’s happened down here,” says Mussenden, referring to a time she was approached by a drug dealer. She says the Old Port’s nightlife is fun and she enjoys the collection of bars in the area. “I don’t really feel unsafe down here, as long as there are police around.”
Dan Jenkins, 22, also opposes change. Jenkins, who spoke against Gorham’s bar-permit reduction proposal at last week’s council meeting, grew up in Portland and is in his senior year at Goucher College in Baltimore. He says Baltimore has an area similar to the Old Port, called Fell’s Point, where bars and clubs are clustered together.
“It seems to me the city doesn’t take into account people under the age of 40,” said Jenkins last Friday night at Amigo’s. “One thing that really surprised me, and that no one seemed to talk about, was the council voted to reduce the number of liquor licenses in the overlay district but was really concerned the Westin Hotel wouldn’t be able to get a license then. They were all very worried whether the multi-million-dollar-rich-people hotel will be able to get their overlay license. I think the small bars for working-class people in the city are what’s important.”
A toned-up grown-up?
However you view it, the Old Port is hot property. Steve Baumann and his father Ed know it. In June 2003, they bought eight buildings along Fore and Wharf streets from landlord Joe Soley. The Baumanns say they have spent $400,000 upgrading the buildings, which they say hadn’t been renovated since the ‘80s.
“We’re really raising the level down here so when a [prospective] tenant comes down here they can visualize what it can be,” says Steve, standing on a recent Friday morning in the renovated space which used to house Headliners bar. Steve manages his father’s property and is a broker at CBRE/The Boulos Co. in Portland. He walks around the 2300-square-foot room, pointing out the new base boarding, the mounted wall lamps, the cream-colored walls sealing off the former dance area. The space, Steve says, rents for about $5000 a month. This bright room, similar in tone to the Street & Co. restaurant a few doors down, used to house one of the most popular dives in town.
The younger Baumann manages the buildings from 30-50 Wharf Street and 432–446 Fore Street. This includes Oasis, the Iguana, the Industry, Digger’s, and Liquid Blue, as well as retail shops and residences. Shortly after purchasing the properties here, the Baumanns set out to make real what Steve calls their “long-term vision” of a swankier Fore and Wharf. The Baumanns installed air-conditioning and security systems in the bars, talked with bar owners about noise and management, and ousted Wimpy’s late-night burger shack on Union Street following complaints from the Portland Harbor Hotel. (A Thai restaurant will open soon in the space.) They’re now looking for tenants to launch restaurants and high-end bars in the vacant bays on Wharf Street. Ed plans to open a wine bar himself at 37 Wharf Street called Bar 37, which will use the city bar permit previously held by Headliners.
Perhaps the Baumanns’ biggest Wharf Street coup was to convince longtime Industry owner Brian Hanson to transform his club into a restaurant. According to Hanson, it’s an idea he kicked around for a while, but it came up again during his lease renewal negotiations with the Baumanns in 2005.
Hanson will soon turn the Industry into “Right Proper Charlie’s,” a British pub-style restaurant. Hanson, who since 1993 has run the only continuously operating nightspot for the 18-plus crowd in the city, is going with the flow.
“The reason there are less bars is there’s a change of economic conditions down here,” Hanson says. “Natural market forces are at work.”
Steve Baumann is natural market forces incarnate. As he fumbles with a sticky lock on the door to 35 Wharf Street, he addresses whether a boutique would be interested in the spot.
“There has to be a bridge to indicate there’s changes now, that Wharf Street can attract more retailers,” he says. “But it can’t do it now. A retailer doesn’t want to be in the midst of an entertainment district.”
Baumann finally catches the lock and pulls the key out. He walks slowly down Wharf Street toward Union, past the iconic cartoon Iguana sign which bar owner Tom Manning has agreed to change to better fit what Baumann calls “the historic district.”
“It’s just the Iguana and Oasis, that’s it [on Wharf Street],” he says. “And that’s a pretty good mix; you can only do so much.”
Baumann, 34, understands — in his younger years, he owned the Pavilion nightclub on Middle Street, now called 188 Bourbon Street. It was a fun time, but these days Baumann has a family and the future of high-end Portland real estate on his mind. He doesn’t party in the Old Port anymore, and he doesn’t seem to miss doing so. Changing the neighborhood is his drink of choice.
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Sara Donnelly: email@example.com