A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Portland's Renegade Bureaucrat

Colin Woodard writes an excellent post-mortem of Portland's Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway fiascos in last week's edition of the Working Waterfront newspaper. Woodard details how one city bureaucrat, former ports and transportation director Jeff Monroe, fabricated economic-impact numbers to convince the city's councilors to spend tens of millions of dollars on cruise ship infrastructure.

Woodard summarizes new research from Todd Gabe and James McConnon, economics professors at the University of Maine who surveyed actual passengers at the cruise ship gangway last summer:

"Their conclusions: the average Portland passenger spends $80.52 ashore, 22 percent less than previously assumed. Almost $7 of that is spent in Freeport (where many are bussed) and an unknown amount in the Kennebunks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire (two other popular bus tours.)

...This raises questions about Jeff Monroe's $200 per passenger per day estimates, which were contained in a 2002 city study used to justify the construction of Ocean Gateway. The figures clearly do not stand up to scrutiny.

...Taken together, [his] errors appear to amount to approximately $86 per passenger, nearly half of Monroe's $200 estimate, raising the possibility that the city built Ocean Gateway on the assumption that revenues to the region would be nearly twice what they actually are."
Monroe's optimistic estimate was used to justify the city's $21 million expenditure on the new Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal. His fake numbers were called up again three years ago, when the city rushed to sign over the publicly-owned Maine State Pier to the politically well-connected developers at Ocean Properties, who promised to "fix" the pier's allegedly-unstable pilings in exchange for the right to build a $100 million hotel-and-office complex, replete with solar panels planted in the shade, on top.

Once the "necessary" repairs were made, the renovated Maine State Pier would also be made available for more cruise ships. But the city "needed" a private developer to foot the substantial repair bill.

"The public was repeatedly led to believe that the pier was in dire need of repairs," writes Woodard, "the costs of which were estimated at as high as $26 million."
Conspiracy theorists have had plenty to work with: when a competing firm unexpectedly responded to the official call for proposals, the city council let Ocean Properties redesign their plans not once but twice; Ocean Properties employees gave generously to the campaigns of the current mayor and to two successful city council challengers, including one who'd been their paid community organizer.

Here's the kicker: the pier never needed serious repairs at all.

The City finally paid for an independent assessment of the Pier's pilings this July, instead of relying on the faithful word of Jeff Monroe and private developers. A July 11th Press Herald article reported the results from engineer Wayne Duffett, who said that "once you get underneath, [the Pier] is in remarkably good condition, and for the most part quite capable for the loads it is designed for.''

Fortunately, the financial crisis swept the developers away before the City had a chance to make the same multi-million dollar mistakes on the Maine State Pier that it made on the Ocean Gateway terminal. Three years after the developers made their pitches to rescue the allegedly-unstable Pier, it's still standing - in fact, there's a cruise ship there today.

With the benefit of hindsight, the hundred-million-dollar hotel and office complex perched atop pilings in the ocean is a textbook case of real-estate-bubble development hubris. But three years ago, the plans dazzled the city into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on staff time, attorneys, and meetings for the competition to develop the Pier. Woodard notes that "Ocean Properties employees gave generously to the campaigns of the current mayor and to two successful city council challengers, including one who'd been their paid community organizer."

Several of those councilors elbowed their way onto the City's Community Development Committee, which would have overseen large development projects like this one. Except now, with the credit crisis, there's not much for the Community Development Committee to do. Instead, Ocean Properties' favored candidates are spending a lot of low-pay hours with the mundane details of zoning language changes, proclamations, and liquor license approvals. One has to wonder whether a guy like Councilor Dan Skolnik, who is still really burned that no one is going to build a luxury hotel on the Pier, is wishing that he could be spending more billable hours at his day job as an attorney.

But why would Jeff Monroe, nominally a civil servant, manipulate so many numbers and lead the city to spend tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure it didn't really need?

As the Ports and Transportation Director, Monroe would have been in charge of overseeing the maintenance and operations of these multi-million-dollar facilities. It may have been a question of prestige. Or it may have been aimed at preserving his own job, by making the Pier and the cruise ship business look more important than they actually were.

Either way, it didn't work. Monroe got laid off last year as the city struggled to balance its budget through the recession.

A cautionary tale for citizens and their representatives: beware of bureaucrats bearing multi-million-dollar engineering schemes.

And for bureaucrats: beware of believing your own bullshit.

To read more about the Maine State Pier in the archives, follow this link.

1 comment:

Festoonic said...

Golly, no one could have predicted that. A few hundred thousand dollars are a modest public downpayment on a multi-million dollar resume bullet.

I'm still convinced that Portland's last best hope is its bureaucratic inertia, which will at least succeed in keeping the biggest of the boondoggles at bay until we eventually bottom out.