South Portland’s Gary Crosby unfazed by city election defeats

South Portland voters last week shot down a ballot question that Gary Crosby spearheaded to keep dogs off Willard Beach six months of the year.

Voters also rejected his bid for a City Council seat. It’s the third time he’s run for council and lost.

But Crosby doesn’t sound like a man defeated.

“As much as I got pounded, I enjoy it,” the 49-year-old business owner and real estate investor said of his involvement in the political process. “I do it for other reasons than just to win. I do it to promote democracy and get people involved.”

And Crosby – who made a name for himself in 2007 leading a successful effort opposing the $56 million proposal to renovate South Portland High School because of the high price tag – said he hasn’t quit his activism on South Portland issues.

For example, Crosby, a dog owner, now is advocating the City Council create the city’s first dog park on some land at Bug Light Park.

Crosby also is involved in promoting the new Maine Military Museum & Learning Center, which opened last year in a small, city-owned former engineering building in Mill Creek Park.

He has donated a building he bought earlier this year to the museum. The nonprofit museum will use the building at 50 Peary Terrace as an extension site to display even more of its wide-ranging collection of military-related artifacts.

Crosby didn’t serve in the military, but his father and two brothers did.

“This is my way of trying to honor and respect what the service people have done,” he said.

And Crosby – who was the Republican candidate for the District 123 seat in the Maine House of Representatives in 2006, but also lost that race – said he may run for some type of office again next year. He said he enjoys being part of the political process.

“Put it this way,” he said. “I haven’t thrown away my signs.”

In the meantime, Crosby said, he plans to put up an electronic message board outside the Neighborhood Laundromat, the Broadway business he owns.

He said the messages will range from announcements of city meetings to pronouncements about issues or life in general.

“That’s my next focus in life,” Crosby said. “To just have people think as they drive by.”

‘Exercise in democracy’

Crosby – who grew up in Connecticut but has lived on Tanner Street in South Portland since 1983 – considers his public efforts all “an exercise in democracy.”

He said that the vote on dogs on Willard Beach was important regardless of the outcome.

“I think we all won,” he said. “Yes, I lost, but I think we as a society or a city all won in our ability to bring something to the people and vote on it. How do you lose on that?”

But his critics don’t see it that way.

On Internet blog discussions of the proposed dog ban – which would have prohibited dogs from Willard Beach from spring until fall and required they be on leashes at all other times – Crosby’s proposal was termed “trivial and petty,” “childish and vindictive” and just plain “ridiculous.”

And Crystal Goodrich, president of the South Portland Dog Owners Group, which opposed the ban, said she disagrees with Crosby’s interpretation of democracy. She said it appears that he wants to send every issue out to a public vote.

“I don’t agree that a referendum is necessary for every single thing,” she said. “My idea of democracy is that we elect people we think can make decisions for us. We can’t vote for every single thing or nothing would get done.”

In the case of dogs on Willard Beach, Goodrich said, she feels “grateful that voters believed our side and saw our point of view.”

With the ban’s failure at the polls, the city’s current ordinance still stands: Dogs may be on the beach from May through September from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The rest of the year, dogs are allowed on the beach from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. They must be under voice control or on a leash at all times.

Goodrich notes that the current ordinance language came about through representative democracy.

It was based on recommendations made by the Willard Beach Task Force. The group of city officials and residents – including Crosby – studied the issue of dogs on the beach. The City Council approved the final regulations earlier this year.

“Gary did not agree with this and he decided to bring this forward (to a citywide vote),” Goodrich said.

Crosby claimed the task force was biased so he decided to bring the issue to voters.

Crosby, who is married with grandchildren, contended that dogs should not be going to the bathroom on a beach where his grandchildren play in the sand in the warm months. He said he never takes his own dog to the beach.

He collected more than 1,000 signatures favoring the ban earlier this year and could have sought to have it on the ballot last June. However, he said, he wanted it held in November when more people traditionally go the polls.

“I was really pleased with the amount of people who showed up,” Crosby said.

The state ballot had several controversial referendum questions, but city officials have said they believe part of the high turnout on Nov. 3 was due to city residents’ interest in the dog ban issue. Some 63 percent of the city’s more than 18,000 registered voters went to the polls. The vote was 6,773 votes against the dog ban and 4,369 in favor, or 61 percent to 39 percent.

Crosby also lost his bid for the City District 3 seat. Rosemarie DeAngelis, a former city councilor, won that race with 4,010 votes, or 42 percent. Christopher Kessler, who runs an eco-friendly cleaning business, came in second with 2,998 votes, or 31 percent. Crosby received 2,636 votes, or 27 percent.

Crosby said that he wasn’t surprised he lost the council seat, given that the dog ban failed. “I figured it would follow along with the referendum,” he said.

Crosby had said that if the ban didn’t succeed, he would accept the voters’ decision about dogs on Willard Beach.

Dogged pursuit

Now he is pursuing another dog issue.

He said he plans to go the City Council soon to propose the creation of a dog park at Bug Light Park. He’s suggesting the dog park be located on three acres across from a building that now houses the South Portland Historical Society. A 1,000-foot fence around the property would cost $18,000 to $20,000, he said. He proposes covering the cost out of dog license fees.

Goodrich called the dog park proposal by Crosby “surprising.”

She said, “Gary said he was not going to touch the issue (if the dog ban failed).”

Goodrich said her group does not favor dog parks because they’re hard to maintain. She pointed to the dog park on Valley Street in Portland and said that over time the grass gets worn and the ground muddy, she said.

Also, she said, dogs can get aggressive with each other in a penned area.

One of the recommendations of the Willard Beach Task Force was that the city consider the possibility of dog parks.

However, Mayor Tom Blake said that the consensus of councilors last year was that no one was interested in pursuing that option.

Crosby still has the right to ask a councilor to bring the idea before the council, Blake said. But he said that even if the council were to consider the idea, he does not believe the Bug Light parcel would be an appropriate place for a dog park.

Another project Crosby is involved in now is the military museum extension building.

He said he bought the 12,000-square-foot Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 832 building in June from the VFW. As part of the agreement, the post will remain in half the building, he said.

In the other side, the museum will set up its displays in half of the remaining space. The other half will be a function hall until the museum can raise more grants and other donations to be self-supporting, Crosby said.

He also plans to build some housing units on part of the building’s extensive parking lot to help finance the purchase.

Lee Humiston, founder and curator of the museum, which focuses on the experiences and sacrifices of Maine members of the military, said he was stunned by Crosby’s donation of the building to the museum in August.

The museum leases the Mill Creek Park building from the city. Although Humiston said the museum has no plans to vacate that space, Crosby’s donation will allow the museum to create an extension site at the property it now owns.

“Right up until we signed the papers, I thought it couldn’t be true,” Humiston said. “What he has done is amazing. He’s my hero.”

Gary Crosby stands by the building at 50 Peary Terrace he recently purchased. He has donated space to the Maine Military Museum & Learning Center. Defeated in his quest for a City Council seat and a Willard Beach dog ban, Crosby has moved on to other issues. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

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