When Mike Dugay looks at Fort Gorges, he sees a historic landmark in desperate need of repair and a location perfect to make that happen.

The Civil War-era granite fort sits in Casco Bay, largely untouched over the last 160 years but viewed by thousands who pass by on boats or admire it from the mainland. With its towering granite walls and panoramic views of Portland and the islands, it is a popular destination for kayakers willing to paddle across the harbor to explore the remains.

The location, Dugay says, could not be better for a restaurant and brewpub and, at some point in the future, a bed-and-breakfast in the historic officers’ quarters. The type of financial investment needed to make that happen would help stabilize the fort, improve public access and allow many more people to visit, he said.

“Fort Gorges has to save itself. The cornerstone of our idea is that the fort takes care of itself,” said Dugay, a Dover-Foxcroft native who returned to Maine a decade ago after working in Florida for 20 years.

But the idea of commercializing Fort Gorges has already run into resistance, even though no formal proposal has been presented to the city. City officials have taken no position on Dugay’s idea, but the plan is opposed by the Friends of Fort Gorges as incompatible with its mission to preserve the structure as a public resource.

Dugay met several times earlier this year with city officials to talk about his ideas. While they said he has since withdrawn his interest, Dugay says he is still interested in moving forward with his proposal and provided new details to the Portland Press Herald.

“The fact that (those discussions with Dugay) happened spurred interest in the community about what the future of the fort is,” said Ethan Hipple, deputy director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department.

The future of Fort Gorges – including the possibility of working with a commercial partner to develop part of the fort – will be discussed Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the city’s Parks Commission and the Portland Parks Conservancy. The forum is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at the East End Community School on North Street.

Mike Dugay holds a rendering of his vision for developing Fort Gorges into a destination that includes a restaurant and easier access to the historic fort. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Nan Cumming, executive director of the Portland Parks Conservancy, a fledgling nonprofit aiming to increase investment in the city’s parks, said her organization is not taking a position on the development proposal. She said the conservancy partnered with the Parks Commission to organize Wednesday’s community forum to educate the community and solicit feedback.

“At this stage, we’re remaining neutral,” Cumming said, stressing that no formal proposal has been submitted to the city. “Our role in proposing this forum is to get out in front of it, open up the process for transparency and hear what the public thinks.”

‘UNREALIZED OPPORTUNITY’

Located on Hog Island Ledge in Casco Bay, the 2-acre Fort Gorges was built during the Civil War but was never garrisoned. Named for Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the fort was commissioned after the War of 1812 but wasn’t completed until just after the Civil War ended.

Ironically, the fort – nearly identical to Fort Sumter in South Carolina – was largely obsolete by the time it was finished. There were plans to modernize it, but that never happened. It was last used during World War II for storage.

The fort, with six walls of granite topped by a layer of dirt and overgrown vegetation, is open to the public but its access is limited because the only way to get there is by private boat. The massive walls contain cavernous rooms and stairwells, and some interior spaces are closed off to the public.

Paul Drinan, executive director art Friends of Fort Gorges, far right, leads a tour at Fort Gorges on Friday. The Friends of Fort Gorges is a nonprofit that has plans on preservation and sustainable development of the historic public park. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Fort Gorges has been a city property since 1960, when it was turned over by the Navy and designated a local landmark. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and in 2013 moved to the top of Greater Portland Landmarks’ “Places in Peril” list, which means renovations are sorely needed.

“It’s an amazingly special place and it deserves to be preserved,” Hipple said.

Dugay, whose professional background is in sales and marketing, said his ideas for Fort Gorges would preserve the fort, leaving the exterior untouched. He pitches his idea to people he meets in Portland and says he generally has a positive response, especially from people who have not had the opportunity to visit Fort Gorges.

Dugay said his idea for the fort would require a long-term lease from the city that would allow for a business investment of $4 million to $6 million to bring utilities to the island, improve the dock for boats and remove the dirt from the top of the fort.

He imagines visitors enjoying dinner, celebrating a wedding or simply taking in the stunning views of Casco Bay and the Portland skyline. Under his proposal, Fort Gorges would continue to be a city park accessible to anyone at no charge.

“This is an unrealized opportunity,” Dugay said. “We do not think (Fort Gorges) should be an exclusive club for kayakers, which is what it is today.”

Hipple, from the parks department, said he is also concerned about the current limited access, but said the city’s interest will always be in maintaining Fort Gorges as a city park. Any development of the fort would include a public request for proposals and a decision would ultimately be made by the City Council.

An airbrushed rendering of Fort Gorges appears above an old fireplace in one of the rooms in the fort. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“If someone comes to us and says they want to take over the whole fort or even 50 percent for a commercial enterprise, we’re not interested in that,” Hipple said. “We’re interested in exploring concepts that are limited in the fort and add to the experience of going out there. First and foremost, it’s a park and it always needs to be free and open to the public.”

‘A DRAW FOR TOURISTS’

On a sunny morning last week, Friends of Fort Gorges executive director Paul Drinan arrived on the island to find a pair of kayakers exploring the fort. Within an hour, close to 50 people were walking through the overgrown parade area in the middle of the moss-covered granite walls. Most of them arrived with tours run by Portland Paddle and other local businesses. An estimated 6,000 people visit the fort each year.

For more than an hour, Drinan led three visitors on a tour of the fort, pointing out its unique details, talking about the history and explaining the work that needs to be done to stabilize the structure. He stopped occasionally to greet other visitors and encourage them to attend Wednesday’s forum and support the Friends’ effort to preserve the fort.

A Portland Paddle tour group takes in the view from the top of Fort Gorges last week. Portland Paddle is one of the business that lead tours at the fort, sometimes having multiple trips on summer days. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The city and Friends of Fort Gorges partnered to create a preservation and restoration plan and reduce hazards at the park. Hazard mitigation work began in 2016 with the repair of a stairway to maintain public access to the second-story roof. The next year, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a series of railings and gates to increase safety for visitors, as well as a viewing platform on top of the north side of the fort.

This fall, Friends of Fort Gorges will launch a campaign to raise money for a $50,000 project that will include improvements to the stone wharf and path to the fort entrance. That project will allow a boat as big as a Casco Bay Lines ferry to pull up and more people to access the fort, Drinan said.

Hipple said it will take an estimated $5 million to stabilize the fort to make it truly accessible, a cost that cannot be covered by tax dollars. That’s why the city is encouraged that Friends of Fort Gorges can be a partner with the city to raise money for those improvements, which include adding cribbing to stabilize an area currently blocked off to visitors and remove the dirt and overgrowth from the top of the fort, he said.

Paul Drinan, executive director of Friends of Fort Gorges, right, takes, from left, Kathleen Doten, Julie Finn and Mary Charlesworth on a tour of Fort Gorges on Friday. All three women have lived in the area for decades but had never made it out to the fort before the tour. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Kathleen Doten of South Portland visited the fort for the first time on a tour with Drinan.

“I’d hate to see it overdeveloped,” she said. “I’d rather see it renovated so people can enjoy it for the history.”

Drinan, who became head of the nonprofit Friends group in 2014, is laser-focused on finding ways to save the fort he fell in love with when he first visited as a teenager.

“Amazing,” he said of his first impression of the fort. “And I still think it’s amazing. There’s nothing like it and there will not be another. It’s our last iconic, one-of-a-kind structure.”

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. 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.

filed under: