Congress Square Park could get a movie screen, an art and games kiosk, sound equipment, and more tables, chairs and benches this summer, after the nonprofit that supports the park received a $100,000 grant to spruce it up and increase programming.

The Friends of Congress Square Park was one of six nonprofits nationwide to win a $100,000 grant through Southwest Airlines’ Heart of Community program, according to Bree LaCasse, a board member and programming chair of the friends group, which sought and will administer the grant.

LaCasse said $50,000 of the grant comes in the form of technical assistance from the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based nonprofit that will help her group develop a vision for the future of Congress Square Park. Another $50,000 will be put toward amenities for the park that are expected to arrive in June.

“We’re thrilled to be selected,” LaCasse said. “It really validates the place-making activities we have done over the past year.”

The park became a flashpoint of debate in 2013 when a group of investors renovating the former Eastland Hotel – now the Westin Portland Harborview hotel – unveiled a plan to purchase the neglected half-acre property at the corner of High and Congress streets to build a ballroom and events center.

The City Council approved the sale, but it was effectively nullified by the Friends of Congress Square Park, which convinced residents to support a citizens’ initiative to increase protections on parks. The group overcame many obstacles to put the question to voters, including battling the city in court over their right to petition.


Since the June 2014 vote, the friends group has been conducting regular cleanups of the park and offering a variety of programming to make the sunken concrete park more attractive to users. Last summer, the group added tables and chairs for public use, as well as a food truck.

This year, the group plans to offer about 70 events from May to October, including movies and outdoor theater, as well as live music and yoga, LaCasse said.

The “In the Square” event series kicks off with a May Day celebration May 1. That will be followed by four performances of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” put on by Portland Stage’s Bare Bard Co. on May 19, 20, 21 and 31.

Regular events will include live music on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m., Sunday Movies at Dusk, interactive art nights with the Portland Museum of Art every third Thursday, and tai chi and yoga from 10 to 11 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, respectively.

Also this year, the group hopes to work with the city to secure $50,000 from the city’s Parks Commission to produce final design plans for the park and the surrounding intersection, known as Congress Square. LaCasse said the friends plan to donate $25,000 in additional funds to that effort.

Bruce Wennerstrom, general manager of the Westin Portland Harborview, said there are fewer problems with crime in the park since the friends group has made improvements and hosted activities. He is “seriously considering” opening up a beer garden during events in the park and has been working closely with the group.

“I’m excited about (the grant). It makes sense for all of us,” Wennerstrom said. “We’re working really well and closely together.”

Southwest’s Heart of the Community program is in its second year, with a goal of revitalizing underutilized public spaces. Southwest announced this year’s recipients Wednesday.

Five other cities received the grant this year: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Fort Myers, Florida; Jacksonville, Florida; Milwaukee and St. Louis.

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