Two years ago, when the first music fans lined up at the Thompson’s Point outdoor concert venue – a grassy field on the Fore River – there wasn’t a whole lot to look at or do while waiting. When the progressive rock band Primus played there in July of 2015, fans walked over dirt lots and past vacant brick buildings more than 100 years old in what was once a train yard but had devolved into a scrubby and partly abandoned industrial area.

But if people head to any one of the 13 big-name rock concerts scheduled for the venue at Thompson’s Point this summer – including My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and Elvis Costello – they’ll have many pleasant distractions to choose from, including eating, drinking, shopping and Bigfoot-gazing. One of those historic brick buildings now houses one of Portland’s hottest micro-breweries, a maker of vodka and gin, a wine tasting room, a circus school, the International Cryptozoology Museum and a fried chicken joint run by one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs.

Thompson’s Point has evolved into an arts and entertainment destination off Portland’s peninsula, away from the traditional arts and culture centers of downtown and the Old Port. The developers of the 30-acre parcel have filled one massive building with tenants and turned another into a 27,000-square-foot event center called Brick South, which housed a music festival called Sunaana in March. That same month, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine announced plans to move to Thompson’s Point in the next few years, likely breaking ground for a new building next year. The developers also plan to build a hotel and a 70-plus-unit apartment complex on the site in the next couple of years.

A WHOLE NEW NEIGHBORHOOD

The hope of the developers, and the tenants, is that Thompson’s Point becomes a thriving neighborhood of its own, known for arts and creativity.

“This is really meant to be a great new neighborhood for Portland, and arts and culture is a big part of that,” said Chris Thompson, one of the developers of the property, along with Jed Troubh.

The development’s focus is partly fueled by the fact that rents and property values on Portland’s peninsula keep going up. So arts businesses, as well as new residents, are looking for new neighborhoods. Thompson’s Point is also located right off Interstate 295 and is accessible by buses and trains at the adjacent Portland Transportation Center. It’s also right on the Fore River and connected to paths set up by Portland Trails.

Thompson has no family connection to the point, despite the name. He was a professor of cultural history at Maine College of Art before becoming a developer. He says he and Troubh tried to pick tenants that would fit the overall vision of the new neighborhood and attract people. One of the those is the popular brewery Bissell Brothers, which has built an incredibly loyal following over the past four years and outgrew its production space on Industrial Way in Portland, near the Westbrook line.

Bissell Brothers opened its space on Thompson’s Point last June, with a two-level tasting area and views of the production facility. The company sells much of its beer right from its brewery with certain kinds for sale on certain days. At 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, several hundred people were lined up outside Bissell Brothers to buy its Nothing Gold beer. The parking lot was filled with license plates from as far away as New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, a sign of the booming beer tourism business in Maine. Next door, people were getting early lunches at Big J’s Chicken Shack, owned in part by Portland restaurateur Jason Loring of Nosh Kitchen Bar and Rhum. Some people were bringing their wings and drumsticks over to the tables at Bissell Brothers. There’s an ordering window between the two places, and people can bring their beer into Big J’s as well.

Like a lot of other Portlanders, for years, Peter Bissell had looked at Thompson’s Point as a kind of “industrial wasteland” with crumbling buildings visible from the highway, he said. But he and his brother Noah, co-owners of the brewery, are extremely happy with the location and with their neighboring businesses and believe the area will become ever more popular.

“People want to live in Portland, there’s a high quality of life, but rents and mortgages are high,” Bissell said. “To have a space like this, abutting downtown and with all these historic structures, is great. The diversity of what’s down here is exciting.”

CIRCUS, CONCERTS CAME, OTHERS FOLLOWED

Thompson and Troubh first announced a $100 million dollar plan to redevelop Thompson’s Point for a mix of retail and residential uses in 2011. They closed the sale of the total property two years later. Their first tenant, in January of 2015, was Circus Conservatory of America, a school teaching aerials, acrobatics and other circus skills to both kids and adults, amateurs and aspiring professionals. But the management of the conservatory ran into a variety of problems and left. Some of the performers and teachers involved formed Circus Maine in the fall of 2015. The space, inside an old building, was built from scratch to include circus-specific elements, like a trampoline pit and in-ground hooks for aerial lines. Enrollment in classes has been increasing, and the business offers “cabaret nights” of entertainment several times a year, plus it organizes events for other groups.

“Jed and Chris believed in us and what we were doing, and because of that, we have one of the few facilities around built for circus training,” said Josh Oliver, a former Cirque du Soleil performer and technical director of Circus Maine. “We expect things to take off now that there’s so much here. We hope people will see our cabaret shows and say, ‘Oh wait, there’s dinner theater down there?’ ”

One of the first things Thompson and Troubh began thinking about when planning the development of Thompson’s Point was use of the flat land near the river for concerts; they looked for a veteran concert promoter to book the shows. In 2010, the present management of the State Theatre on Congress Street in Portland, The Bowery Presents, reopened the former movie house, built in 1929, which had been closed for several years. Manager Lauren Wayne soon was searching for a place to mount outdoor shows. As the music industry has changed drastically over the last decade or more, most acts rely much more on touring than on music sales to make money. And the incredible growth of music festivals has convinced music promoters all over the country that outdoor summer concerts are a profitable and growing business.

In 2014, the State Theatre and Thompson’s Point’s partners announced they’d joined forces to mount outdoor concerts.

“The acts are touring a lot more in the summer, and it just makes sense to have places for them to play,” said Wayne, who also manages Port City Music Hall on Congress Street. “We had looked at a lot of different places, and partners, but we wanted the right fit.”

Wayne wanted a pleasant, open, grassy spot, not a concrete parking lot. And she wanted to bring up-and-coming acts or acts with loyal fans of discerning music lovers – the type of acts she books for the State Theatre. She had no interest in filling an outdoor venue with nostalgia acts that hadn’t made new music in several decades.

Portland’s other outdoor concert venue, run by Bangor-based Waterfront Concerts on the city-owned Maine State Pier, puts on a mix of old and new acts, country and pop. Bands scheduled to play there this summer include Primus, which has also played Thompson’s Point, as well as ’80s star Pat Benatar, rock band Gov’t Mule, guitarist Joe Bonamassa and country star Billy Currington.

The pier holds about 3,000 people for concerts, while Thompson’s Point can hold 7,500. The Alabama Shakes concert scheduled at Thompson’s Point for Aug. 5 has already sold that many tickets, Wayne said.

Wayne said she wanted to build the slate of shows at Thompson’s Point slowly, while establishing the venue’s reputation for a good experience with both fans and artists. The first year – 2015 – bad weather kept the number of shows to just two.

But last year, 10 shows were held, including Bob Dylan, Ray Lamontagne, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers and Leon Bridges.

This year, 13 have been planned, including Elvis Costello, Wilco, Guster and Trey Anastasio of Phish.

During the shows, food and drink are sold under a giant train shed roof, suspended from poles on the grassy field. Water is available for free to fill bottles. People are encouraged to bring blankets and low-slung chairs. For some shows, portable chairs are brought in to be used as reserved seating. That’ll be the case at Costello’s show, which will feature reserved and general admission seating. Wayne said 12 to 18 shows a summer is probably the “sweet spot” for the number of quality shows the place can put on each year.

The fact that people can grab a beer or shop or browse a museum before the concert, all within a five-minute walk, can only help the concert experience, Wayne said.

The developers of Thompson’s Point are trying to promote the destination as a place one can get to by walking, riding a bike or taking the bus. Parking is limited to about 800 cars for shows, and the fee is $20.

There is a bus and train station on Thompson’s Point, and the Portland Trails system of paths leads there. Thompson said there have been discussions with the city and other officials about an express Metro bus from downtown, with no other stops. People who ride the Metro bus to shows now can enter the venue more quickly through an “express” gate by showing their bus transfer. Thompson said organizers are hoping to do something similar for cyclists.

“We definitely want to encourage alternative transportation. We don’t want this place to be one big parking lot,” Thompson said.

MUSEUM, THEATER, HOTEL TO COME

The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine has been housed in a historic building on Free Street, next door to the Portland Museum of Art, since 1993. When the staff began looking for a new space several years ago, parking was an important consideration, said Suzanne Olson, executive director. Since the museum is open mostly during the daytime, it usually won’t have to compete with concert-goers for parking space. The museum attracted about 115,000 visitors this past year, Olson said. .

The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine announced in March it would build a new building at Thompson’s Point, larger than its existing 17,000 square feet; the exact size of the new building, which the museum will own, has not been determined. Work is scheduled to start in 2018 with the hope of finishing in about two years.

Olson said the location right off I-295 and next to the bus and train station will be a plus for families, as will the proposed hotel, which could lure people who are looking for a place to stay in Greater Portland and want some kids’ activities nearby. Plus, mom and dad will be able to have a beer or glass of wine nearby without having to get in a car and drive.

“As we’ve watched this develop, we’ve known that with Chris’ arts background that he had it in his heart to do this, to focus on the arts there,” said Olson. “We feel like with concerts there, and the hotel and everything else planned, there will be a very nice energy. We’re excited that it’s taken this direction.”

 

This article has been edited to reflect that water is available to fill bottles.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:
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Twitter: @RayRouthier