March 18, 2010

Councilor airs skepticism about pier

— It's not often that a member of the Portland City Council e-mails a floor speech to every journalist within earshot. But Dan Skolnik had his reasons.

''I don't want to be mischaracterized (down the road),'' Skolnik said Tuesday.

His statement, which he read only hours after he was sworn in as a new councilor on Dec. 3, explained at length why he would subsequently vote against The Olympia Cos. -- and for Ocean Properties Ltd. -- to redevelop the city-owned Maine State Pier.

His reason: Ocean Properties, which ultimately lost the vote, could have built the $100 million project with its own money. Olympia, which won, cannot.

And that has Skolnik worried. So worried that before last week's council meeting, he asked for an executive session with Joseph Cuetara, a financial consultant from Boston who was hired by the city this year to analyze the competing plans.

Skolnik's concern: Ongoing jitters in the money markets might make financing a $100 million project tougher now than it seemed six months ago.

The executive session had lasted only 17 minutes when, Skolnik said, there was an ''attempt'' to end it and get on with the vote in open session. He managed to prolong the discussion another 10 minutes.

And?

''I need to be careful here,'' Skolnik said, noting the secrecy of executive sessions. ''But it was made clear to everyone that financial capability is an inescapable determining factor'' in picking a pier developer.

''The only way to escape it is to ignore it,'' Skolnik added. ''And that's what some of my colleagues chose to do.''

In other words, while five of his fellow councilors decided that Olympia can come up with the scratch to get this mega-deal done, Skolnik still needed to be convinced.

And did Cuetara's remarks behind closed doors assuage his worries?

Skolnik shook his head. ''It reinforced them,'' he said.

Contacted Tuesday, Olympia President Kevin Mahaney pointed to an Aug. 20 letter to the council from Lawrence Wold, president of TD Banknorth.

In it, Wold cited an ''unblemished favorable experience'' with Mahaney over the last 15 years and said TD Banknorth would lead a ''bank group'' in financing the project.

''Financing isn't an issue, hasn't been an issue and won't be an issue,'' Mahaney said flatly.

Nor is Mahaney worried about the various regulatory and environmental permits his plan requires -- another hurdle, as Skolnik noted last week, not found in Ocean Properties' plan.

Asked to name the biggest permitting hurdle he faces with the pier project, Mahaney essentially said it's all good from where he sits.

''It's what we do for a living,'' he said. ''There really aren't any large outstanding issues in our mind.''

Color Skolnik skeptical. He has conferred with people in both banking and real estate development who tell him there's plenty to fear these days when it comes to permitting and paying for a project of this size.

That's why Skolnik wants the world to know, from the get-go, where he stands in this saga.

''If reason is the council's stock in trade,'' he said, ''then we ran out of stock last Monday night.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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