PORTLAND – It seemed like a simple request to extend Ready Seafood Co.’s lease.

The live-lobster wholesale company, which has grown from 20 to 44 employees since relocating in 2009 to the Portland Ocean Terminal on Maine State Pier, wanted to stay through 2015.

The company’s lease expires at the end of 2012, and company co-owner John Ready said he wanted long-term security so he could invest in the building.

But the request touched off a vigorous 45-minute debate this week about the future of the Maine State Pier. City Councilors John Anton and Cheryl Leeman dueled at the Community Development Committee’s monthly meeting about how the city should proceed, only sparingly mentioning Ready Seafood Co.

“You’re betwixt and between some larger issues,” Anton said apologetically at one point to Ready.

The debate centered on two intertwining, but slightly different questions: First, should the city extend the company’s lease? Leeman said yes.

“This is what we keep talking about: We want a working waterfront,” she said. “They’re water-related, they sell a Maine product and they create jobs. They do everything we ask.”

But Anton said the lease leaves both Ready Seafood Co. and the city vulnerable. First, the city can evict the company at any point using 30 days written notice, according to the terms of the contract.

That clause was inserted to give the city flexibility in case an enticing development came along and the city wanted to act quickly, city officials said.

So what happens, Anton asked, if the company pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into making the building more efficient, and then the city asks it to leave in 2015 or sooner?

They’ve lost that money, Anton said, and the city has nowhere to put a highly successful, tax-producing company with 44 jobs.

“I don’t want to be in that position, and I don’t want to put you in that position,” Anton said to John Ready. “I’d like to see if we can find another location on the waterfront that can support your business: A real long-term solution that allows you to invest.”

For his part, Ready said finding another location for his business would be difficult. His business uses 10,000 square feet, needs to have to direct access to the water and must have a secure location.

Ready Seafood Co. does business with many international boats, including European and Asian customers. Having a recognized secure location gives his shipments priority around the world without security hold-ups.

Anton asked Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, to work on finding another space that meets all of the company’s needs. “We have 15 months before the current lease ends,” Anton said. “Let’s see what’s out there. I want to confirm we’ve exhausted all our options (before extending the lease).”

The second debated question at the meeting was inexorably linked to the first: When and how should the city develop the Maine State Pier? Leeman said the city moves at a glacial pace, so any planning and implementation will take longer than the extra three years Ready is seeking. That’s another reason to extend the lease, she said.

But Anton said the city has planned “every inch of the eastern waterfront.”

After a pair of $100 million proposals for the Maine State Pier fell through several years ago — a drawn-out process that divided the City Council and angered the public — the council rezoned the waterfront to allow for more nonmarine uses and in September 2009 passed a short-term plan for the pier.

Mitchell said the city hadn’t enacted that plan “because it hasn’t been a priority,” but Anton told him to make it one. He asked Mitchell to bring an implementation plan to next month’s meeting.

Part of the short-term plan called for the removal of half of the 100,000-square-foot Portland Ocean Terminal where Ready Seafood Co. is located. The removal would add open space, improve sight lines and a create a larger berthing area for small boats.

“I think everyone on the council, if it came between public space and a working waterfront, would prefer a working waterfront,” Anton said. “Both are important, but we need a working waterfront.

“But as a council, we should either stick with the plan we’ve passed, or talk about it and go in another direction. But let’s have that discussion, and then begin implementing it.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or:

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