September 13, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Portland plaza reality gets lost in the kerfuffle

By Bill Nemitz

(Continued from page 1)

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An April 2013 file photo of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Phootgrapher

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The problem, of course, is that the steel drums, the musicians and the dancers are all long gone. And leaving your kid alone in Congress Square Plaza these days is a good way to get yourself reported to the Maine Office of Child and Family Services.

Which brings us to Penny Carson, a longtime Congress Street property owner who bluntly told the council, "We have seen everything in that park ... I've seen the movies there. I've seen the skating rink there. None of it worked."

Carson is a member of the Pachios family, whose holdings in downtown Portland date all the way back to the 1940s. Nevertheless, she belongs squarely in the forward-looking group.

Carson's take: Without a vibrant business community, you don't attract people. And without people, the nicest public space in the world will inevitably deteriorate into just another no-man's land.

"I don't even want to say the words 'economic development' because it apparently is going to upset some people here," said Carson, who occupied Maine long before any Occupy Mainer. "But the way things get done in this city is (through) a partnership with the elected officials, the citizens and the businesses. It is the businesses that hire people, it is the businesses that pay their taxes as well as the citizens. We have a say. We want to see some change there."

As does everyone. The question is, what kind of change?

Should the council side with those who yearn for the long-ago sound of steel drums and hope that this time (unlike last time), a rehabilitated plaza will retain its magnetic hold on young and old, rich and poor, well-groomed and grizzled? And if so, how much will it cost and who's going to pay for it?

Or should the council accept that this 30-year experiment in urban oasis building is a failure, allow Rockbridge Capital to build its event center with a modest plaza attached, and see how the public-private approach works for a few decades?

Or should it look for something in between, which is exactly what Councilor Cheryl Leeman spent Thursday doing?

"I met with both sides today," said Leeman, who, along with Councilor Jill Duson, is widely viewed as a potential swing vote when the deal goes back to the council for final action on Monday.

Leeman said she's working on "some amendments" that she hopes will "bring the contentiousness out of this issue" and head off a protracted lawsuit or a citywide referendum -- or both. (She might start by asking the people who are fighting to save the plaza why they abandoned it in the first place.)

"I've never seen anything that has me so conflicted," Leeman said. "I'm waking up at night over this thing."

She's not the only one.

I keep dreaming that Occupy Maine just moved into the porta-potties.

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

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