Deputy Parks Director Ethan Hipple addresses a crowd about the development potential of Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor at a community meeting jointly hosted by the Portland Parks Conservancy and Friends of Fort Gorges. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — With the public voting heavily against using a Portland Harbor historic site for commercial purposes, the city is looking to see how else it can best to use the island.

For close to 50 years, Fort Gorges on Hog Island has been part of the Portland parks system. But the property differs greatly from Portland’s 65 other park and open space properties because it is only accessible by private boat.

Fort Gorges is one of 66 park or open spaces the city of Portland manages, but is the only one located in the middle of Portland Harbor. Courtesy photo

That, Deputy park Director Ethan Hipple said, does not mean the property is treated any differently.

“Our role in the parks division is to protect all of our parks and that includes Fort Gorges,” Hipple said at a Sept. 4 meeting of the Portland Parks Conservancy and Friends of Fort Gorges that saw many residents vote against commercializing the 130-year-old site.

The vote was nonbinding, but gives city officials in the Parks Department and members of the Parks Commission guidance as to how to move forward with preservation at Fort Gorges.

While there may be the potential for commercial interests at the fort, the city has signed off on two plans to help preserve the future of Fort Gorges. A $50,000 access plan calls for improved access to the island by installing a pressure-treated deck, fortifying the wharf, and creating a path from the wharf to the fort’s main entrance. This would allow a large boat, such as a Casco Bay Ferry, to bring people to the island for tours and events.

“There is a need, there is an interest and there is money to be made that can be funneled back into the fort,” Paul Drinan, executive director of Friends of Fort Gorges, said of increasing tours of the island.

A more expensive undertaking, dubbed the preservation plan, would improve access to the southwest parapet of the fort overlooking mainland Portland by replacing the 20-year-old wooden staircase with a metal structure. Temporary cribbing would also be added to failing interior archways.  The project is expected to cost $420,000, half of which would be contributed by the city, the other half by Friends of Fort Gorges fundraising efforts.

Individuals at a community meeting last week made it clear they are not comfortable with commercializing Fort Gorges beyond occasional special events and tours. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The plan that brought people out to the Sept. 4 meeting wasn’t the access or preservation plan. Rather, it was the discussion Portland resident Mike Dugay has had with city officials this spring about his vision for partially commercializing the fort – although Hipple said no formal proposal has been drafted or filed.

The location, Dugay told the Portland Press Herald, is perfect for a restaurant and brewpub and, eventually, a bed-and-breakfast in the historic officers’ quarters, which is not now accessible to the public. That sort of investment, he said, would help stabilize the fort, improve public access and allow many more people to visit.

Craig LaPine of the Parks Commission said rather than have a knee- jerk reaction to the idea, there should be a public discussion about the park department’s 10-year capital improvement plan, which covers when and how improvements at parks, including Fort Gorges, are made.

While Friends of Fort Gorges see commercial opportunity at the fort, have preservation plans in the works and are open to some sort of a private-public partnership, Drinan said the group is against the scope of Dugay’s idea.

So were many of those at the meeting at East End Community Center.

Residents cast a non-binding vote as to what level of development they would like to see at Fort Gorges. More than 50 % indicated they would like to see city and private funding continue to be used for preservation. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

According to a straw poll at the meeting, half of the 151 people in attendance preferred to have a combination of city funding and private funding support preservation of the fort, with no commercial partnership. Slightly more than 40 percent of people would like to see limited temporary activities support the fort, such as concerts, tours and other events. Just three of the audience members opted to leave the fort alone, letting it deteriorate naturally to the point where it eventually becomes off-limits to the public. Around 10 people cast a ballot to allow a hospitality-related commercial development to help pay for full restoration of the fort by privatizing a portion of it.

The City Council has the final say over what level of commercial activity is allowed on the property.

Hipple said adding a commercial element to a park activates additional public use and creates a revenue stream for the city in the form of licenses and leases. He pointed out that a number of other parks in the city already have small commercial elements to them, including kayak and bicycle rentals at Eastern Promenade, the farmers market and Tika Cafe in Deering Oaks and a number of special events held in city parks throughout the year.

Hipple said the city has no interest in selling the property – which it has owned for close to 60 years– but is open to a partnership to help sustain the fort. Before a partnership could be formed, the City Council would have to release a request for proposals, open to any organization that would want to try to partner with the city.

“We know we can’t do this on our own,” Hipple said.

Fort Gorges (pronounced “gorgeous”), was built between 1858 and 1864 and was modeled after Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The fort, named for Sir Fernando Gorges, a colonial proprietor of Maine, was last used for storage during World War II. It was declared surplus property after World War II, and the federal government conveyed Fort Gorges to the city in 1960.

The Parks Commission will be holding its strategic planning meeting Saturday, Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to noon at 212 Canco Road.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.