May 11, 2013

Vacancies plague Portland waterfront

Pier owners can't fill space for marine uses, and an updated inventory of tenants could have an impact on the way space is allotted.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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The ground floor of the Merrill’s Wharf building has yet to attract a marine-use tenant nine months after Pierce Atwood moved into the upper floors.

2012 Press Herald file photo/Gregory Rec

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Renovations move forward on a building on Portland Wharf.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

In Portland, only 5.6 million pounds of groundfish worth $8.9 million were landed, down from the 8.1 million pounds valued at $12.1 million in 2008, according to the Portland Fish Exchange.

There are between 40 and 45 active groundfishing licenses in Maine, with about 35 of those fishermen either landing or trucking their catch to Portland, according to DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols.

That's down from as many as 350 vessels in 1990.

"The fishing year that began on May 1 will impose significant landings restrictions on the ground-fish fleet, so we would not expect to see an increase in participation this year," Nichols said in an email.

As the groundfish industry has waned, so have industries supporting it, said Larry Legere, chairman of the Waterfront Alliance, a diverse coalition of waterfront users.

"Groundfishing is pretty much nonexistent now," Legere said.

Lobstering remains a strong industry, as does the cruise-ship industry. The city's cargo port is slowly making a comeback after a year without service.

Ken Macgowan, whose family owns Custom House Wharf, said he is already at his limit of nonmarine uses, including the Porthole Restaurant and Pub. He has roughly 8,000 square feet of vacant space for a marine tenant, but the only marine uses he sees are lobstermen, who only want berthing space,.

Macgowan said all of his berthing space has been leased to lobstermen, limiting the options for marine uses in his pier buildings.

"It doesn't do any good to have space for a marine-related tenant if you don't have a place for them to put their boat," he said.

Meanwhile, Union Wharf is losing a marine tenant -- a lobster-trap maker is moving to the Riverside industrial area -- and advertising efforts over the last few months have failed to generate interest from marine users, according to Charlie Poole, president of the Proprietors of Union Wharf.

"It has berthing and truck access -- all of the ingredients," said Poole, who is not planning on seeking permission to lease the space to a nonmarine user. "I have had zero interest from the marine world."

Tinsman is spearheading the renovation of the Maine Wharf pier, which suffered structural damage after years of use as a lobster wholesale business.

The lobster wholesaler, Three Sons Lobster & Fish, and two other marine businesses -- raft-maker and marine supplier Chase Leavitt and Fresh Atlantic sea urchin processing -- were evicted from the wharf because of safety concerns before it was purchased last year by Goodrich, the chief executive officer of Powerpay.

Two other marine businesses, Morrison's Maine Course and Upstream Trucking, as well as berthing for commercial vessels, are still on the pier.

The renovation plan includes increasing the first-floor ceiling height and building out the second and third floors, said Tinsman, who noted the project is not seeking any zoning exceptions.

In the absence of marine users, nonmarine users such as restaurants, retailers and office users have expressed interest in the space, Tinsman said.

"It's definitely a hot spot for a restaurant. We have a few . . . looking," he said.

Tinsman said pier supports have been stabilized and permits have been pulled to begin renovating buildings. The renovation process will be done in phases over the coming year, and some changes may require approvals from the city's Planning Board, he said.

Tinsman said the goal is to work within the existing building footprint. Rather than keeping the current warehouse look, the design will have a "cool, eclectic waterfront" feel, he said.

City Zoning Administrator Marge Schmuckal said Maine Wharf has not requested any determination letters about whether the group's marketing efforts -- or any potential restaurant use -- met the letter of the code.

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Additional Photos

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Several of Portland’s waterfront piers are undergoing renovations. The projects include work being done at Boone’s restaurant on Custom House Wharf.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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King’s Head LLC has leased this space on Merrill’s Wharf for a gastro-pub that is scheduled to open in September.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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