Portland Downtown officials want to bring more public restrooms to town, and they hope city leaders won’t pooh-pooh the request for $1 million from Portland’s American Rescue Plan funds to do so.

The need for more places for people to do their business while going about their business downtown is one that according to Cary Tyson, executive director of Portland Downtown, a nonprofit downtown improvement district, is more prevalent than ever. 

Portland Loo

A Portland Loo at Colonel Summers Park in Portland, Oregon. Portland Downtown, a group that supports businesses in downtown Portland, Maine, would like the city to buy up to 10 Portland Loos using coronavirus relief funds. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s long been the most-asked question by visitors stopping by the information center kiosk in Tommy’s Park, but since the coronavirus pandemic, with more restaurants and shops closing their restrooms to the public, the need has only grown. 

Portland is currently trying to decide how to divvy up $46.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, and Tyson and the rest of Portland Downtown think the city has a unique opportunity to finally take the plunge and create more public facilities.

The money can be used only for certain expenditures, although guidelines seem to offer great leeway, and Tyson said public bathrooms would fit the bill.

Allowed expenses include public health measures, hazard pay for public and private front-line workers, business grants, affordable housing, child care and other costs resulting from revenue losses or budget shortfalls. The money cannot be used expressly to pay down debt, cover pension obligations, finance rainy day funds, reduce taxes or provide matching funds for federal grants.

“It’s a public health response and is certainly a public health issue,” Tyson said. “Everyone has that human need.” 

There are a number of very real, important needs facing the community, he noted, like affordable housing, the unhoused population, childcare and others, but there’s also a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to fund something also very much needed, and so far the community has been supportive.

Portland does have a few options for public restrooms, including one at the Spring Street Parking Garage, another at the Casco Bay Ferry terminal, and a handful of porta-potties. 

“Those are great, but if you’re not in that area, you might need something a little closer,” Tyson said, adding that the goal is for the new units to be in “geography that allows for those … who feel time is of the essence.” 

There are plenty of choices for portable toilets for the city to choose from, ranging from the most basic stalls to elaborate, self-cleaning, see-through or creatively shaped units, but Tyson has his eye on The Portland Loo, a stainless steel, one-person, unisex restroom designed and popularized by Portland, Oregon. 

The Portland Loo is reportedly easy to clean and difficult to vandalize, and has an open bottom and top, allowing enough privacy for users answering nature’s call, but not so much that they’ll become a target for crime like drugs and prostitution, according to the bathroom’s website. A handwashing station and a baby-changing station each can be mounted on the outside. 

Tyson estimates $1 million would be enough to buy roughly eight to 10 of the bathrooms, two or three of which would be spaced between the arts and government area and the Old Port.

The Portland Loo is middle-of-the-road in terms of cost, he said, with a price tag between $100,000 and $150,000 per unit, not including installation or other potential costs like sewer connection or land purchase.

A set of self-cleaning bathrooms recently installed in Montreal cost about $325,000 per toilet. Those would be ideal, but Tyson said he tried to balance cost, function and appeal.

Porta-potties, on the other hand, cost about $500 per month, Tyson said, and “most people would agree they’re not the highest and best answer. They do provide a facility, but we’d like to see something more permanent.”

These restrooms would be free for the public to use, and could also offer a safe and clean place for people experiencing homelessness to use the bathroom.

This would be especially important during a period of uncertainty and transition as Portland works to find an agency willing to open a day shelter for people who are homeless and do not have a place to go indoors. 

The city recently offered nearly $260,000 to any social service agency willing to take on the task, but nobody responded. 

Portland has been without a day shelter since the social service nonprofit Preble Street closed its facility at the onset of the pandemic last year. 

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter is open 24 hours a day, but only people who are staying there and in good standing can access that space.

Bill Higgins, executive director of Portland advocacy group Homeless Advocacy for All, said there’s absolutely a need for more public restrooms downtown. 

A real bathroom instead of a porta-potty or other, more public option, would provide “more dignity” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. 

“A lot of people who are homeless have limited funds so they don’t have the ability to be a paying customer,” Higgins said, noting that among places that haven’t closed their doors due to the pandemic, many only open the bathroom door for customers. “(Having publicly accessible bathrooms) provides a great sense of community for all people and puts them on a level playing field with all the other members of the community.”

If approved, Portland Downtown would also contribute some funds for the restrooms’ maintenance.

The organization is also advocating for more drinking water fountains in the city, which would be handled through a separate funding request. Fountains, which could be placed in parks or certain distances apart, Tyson suggested, would also be pet-friendly, featuring bowls down at the bottom.

“Water and restrooms would go so, so far for some of our issues,” he said. “With a city that has such a tourism-forward face, it would only benefit everybody to provide a positive experience. Downtown is extraordinary, and this would only make it more so.”

Portland Downtown will present its suggestions at a public hearing on how to spend the American Rescue Plan funds on Sept. 13. There is also an online survey open through Sept. 17.

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