Portland is once again looking into whether it should build a convention center.

The idea has come and gone like the tide over the last two decades, but has never overcome financing and siting hurdles.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings says that,without a convention center, “We’re turning away an incredible amount of business that could come to our city.”

On Tuesday, the city staff asked the City Council’s Economic Development Committee to seek a request for proposals to study whether building a convention center is feasible in Maine’s largest city. The three-member panel told the staff to come back early next year with an estimated cost for a study and a commitment from the private sector to help pay for it.

Councilor Justin Costa, who leads the committee, said it would be a while before the city hears details about the costs of building and operating a convention center and where it might be located, although tourism officials have expressed interest in having it downtown.

“We’re pretty far removed from having a concrete proposal,” Costa said.

Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said that given ongoing development in the city, options for siting a facility on the peninsula are dwindling. He said that the Portland Co. site at 58 Fore St. on the eastern waterfront is one of the few remaining parcels that could accommodate a large building with access to public transit and parking.


City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who serves on the committee and was on the council when previous proposals were considered, urged councilors to ensure that the cost of the study and the facility itself doesn’t affect taxpayers.

“My recollection is that whatever entity runs the convention center may not operate in the black and I think we need to be mindful of that impact on our taxpayers,” Mavodones said.

Mavodones is seeking his eighth term on the council. His opponent, Joey Brunelle, blasted the proposal on social media.

“I will not support a single dollar of public funds going to a convention center before we have fulfilled the needs of Portland residents with public schools, public affordable housing, public transit, public health and social services,” Brunelle said in a Facebook post. “‘’There isn’t money for that,’ is always the answer we get when we want to spend money on people. But the City leaps at the chance to spend even more money on private business.”

The last study of the idea was by the Boulos Co. in 2002, according to Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland. At the time, the company was looking at building a facility at the Top of the Old Port parking lots near City Hall on Congress Street.

“Back then, it said we needed a convention center and we didn’t have a quarter of the (hotel) rooms we have now,” Tillotson said. “Since then, the hotel growth in the area has skyrocketed. We have so much more demand.”


City Manager Jon Jennings also said the increase in hotel rooms – as well as the city’s growing reputation as an arts, culture and food destination – have created a need for a convention center that could accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people.

During an interview with WGAN Newsradio Friday morning, Jennings lamented that the city hadn’t pursued a proposal by the Libra Foundation in 2000 to build a center in Bayside.

“We know we’re turning away an incredible amount of business that could come to our city, not just in the summer months but throughout the year,” Jennings said.

Tillotson said local companies, such as Wex, Idexx and Unum, have to travel out-of-state to hold a convention because there are few options in Maine. She said attendance at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism has been limited to 450 people because of limited capacity at venues like the Holiday Inn by the Bay, Augusta Civic Center and Bangor Convention Center. She said the event could easily draw 1,000 people.

“The few larger events we host are usually in more central locations because we have employees all across the country,” said Andrea Descoteaux, assistant vice president of Corporate Events for Unum. “As an events professional, it would be an interesting option to have that kind of space in Portland.”

Having a convention center downtown, where people could walk to restaurants, shops and hotels, would be a huge draw, Tillotson said. Such a facility would encourage convention-goers to return for a visit or stay for an extended vacation, with positive economic ripple effects for areas businesses.

“It’s absolutely prime time for a convention center,” she said. “It will allow us to promote the area in shoulder seasons when we have availability.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.