A Portland City Council committee expressed full support Tuesday evening for a proposal to change the name of Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Spencer Thibodeau, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray, all members of the council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said the renaming of Franklin Street was long overdue.

The effort, if successful, means that a street most likely named after one of the nation’s Founding Fathers would be renamed after a modern-day civil rights hero and activist.

No votes were taken at Tuesday’s meeting. The councilors said they still want to hear from the public before making their recommendation to the nine-member City Council. The committee will hold a public hearing Feb. 15. Final council approval could happen as soon as March 6, a month before the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

“This (renaming) would send an unbelievably powerful message to anyone driving through our city,” said Thibodeau, the committee’s chairman.

The committee asked the city manager and his staff to research the street’s history and to look at the impact of changing its name.

City Manager Jon P. Jennings said his staff was unable to find any historical evidence that the street was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin.

But a prominent state historian, as well as a local historian, said in separate interviews this week that Franklin Street almost certainly was named after Benjamin Franklin.

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., the retired director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Herb Adams, an authority on Portland history, said they are not 100 percent sure that Franklin Street was named after Franklin, but they are pretty confident that it was.

Records at the Portland Public Library and Greater Portland Landmarks do not offer any documentation that would indicate the street was named after Franklin.

A researcher at Portland Landmarks said that Franklin Street predates the construction of Franklin Wharf by the Franklin Wharf Co. in 1860.

Julia Larry, the director of advocacy for Portland Landmarks, said in an email, “The suggestion that it was named after Ben Franklin is not that far-fetched.”

Shettleworth and Adams noted that the world-famous Founding Father died in 1790 and that a portion of the former Essex Street was renamed Franklin Street in 1798.

Adams said Portland at that time was honoring the patriotic heroes who founded the new nation. Washington Avenue, as well as Monroe, Madison and Adams streets, still exist today.

Whether the possible link to Benjamin Franklin may cause controversy remains to be seen, but Jennings said it should not be a problem.

“To be honest with you, so what if it was Benjamim Franklin? Dr. King was also a significant part of our history,” Jennings said.

“I have no reluctance to do this,” Duson said. “It’s long overdue.”

Ray said she views Franklin Street as the gateway to Portland and she hopes the city will invest the resources to make it as inviting as possible.

“I see this as a great opportunity for a new beginning on that street,” Ray said.

Jennings said the cost to the city of renaming Franklin Street would be minimal. New street signs bearing the civil rights activist’s name would cost Portland between $2,000 and $3,000 to manufacture in its public works shop, Jennings estimated.

The state would be responsible for changing the signage on Interstate 295, but Jennings did not know how much that would cost.

City officials say there is no other street or public property in Portland named in honor of King. Portland has a King Middle School, but that was named after Helen King, a Portland educator and principal.



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