Now that the economy has tanked and the developers with fake tans have slinked out of town, it's a great time for the city to take a deep breath and decide what the future of the waterfront will be.
Today's Press Herald includes a fantastic audio slideshow by Scott Hanson, Portland's historic preservation officer, that provides an in-depth explanation of the history of the Maine State Pier and Portland's Eastern Waterfront. The accompanying news article by Tom Bell is also excellent - as one commenter noted, "could this be a part of a brighter future for our threatened print newspaper?" I hope so (I also think that this feature generated the most complimentary and civil comments I've ever seen on the Press Herald's web site, which is another credit to the quality of the report).
I attended tonight's public forum and panel discussion about the pier and "related economic issues," but it was a bit of a disappointment. Panelists included Charlie Colgan, economist from USM, John Henshaw of the Maine Ports Authority, and a commercial broker from CBRE.
Unfortunately, with the exception of some rather discouraging shipping data from Mr. Henshaw, there weren't many economic insights to be had this evening. Mr. Colgan briefly mentioned research that indicates many waterfront areas have transitioned from an industrial economy to a service economy in the past 20 years, and then spent most of his time talking about other cities' waterfront tourist attractions and how nice it would be for Portland to have a pleasure ground where tenured university professors could dine and stroll on the pier.
The broker from CBRE largely echoed Mr. Colgan, saying that the Pier would be most valuable as a tourist attraction. His argument was more nuanced, though: he pointed out that there are over a dozen large empty lots in downtown Portland, so there's little point in perching office buildings and hotels on top of expensively shored-up pier pilings. Instead, the Pier should be an amenity that helps drive redevelopment inland, he said.
Mr. Henshaw guided the audience through a printed PowerPoint presentation of bar charts, unfortunately. But the gist was that Portland's cargo shipments are in decline, and cruise traffic has been variable.
Mr. Henshaw made two valuable points, though: first, that freight traffic is cyclical (and remember that we happen to be in the middle of a major economic disruption - one that's ravaging Mr. Colgan's favored service sector). Second, the Maine State Pier has an extremely valuable industrial and transportation asset: a deep-water berth where large ships can dock. And third, wind turbine shipments have begun to come through Portland... and what about the possibility of using Portland's working waterfront to assemble and maintain floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine? This last point seemed to compel the people in the room more than any other made this evening.
Another forum will be tomorrow evening at 7 pm in the Ocean Gateway building: this one will discuss ways to leverage developer investment to enhance public goods, like public access, quality jobs, and transportation infrastructure. A final forum will be an extended "community design workshop" on April 11. The City is encouraging potential attendees to pre-register here.