Longtime advocates for a convention center in Portland welcomed this week’s announcement of a $75 million plan to build the state’s largest event hall, even if it is in the city next door.

To be successful, a project of the magnitude proposed would likely require some level of public financing, possibly through a convention center bond pending in the Maine Legislature. The developers have indicated they would like to modify that funding package – which would limit any planned convention center to Portland – to include the Rock Row development in Westbrook.

Members of the Greater Portland business community said they are flexible when it comes to the location.

“We have long thought it needs to be in downtown Portland for the walkability to hotels, restaurants and amenities,” said Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But times have changed. Portland has scarce space for the size of convention center now proposed at Rock Row, a quarry redevelopment project in Westbrook bordering Interstate 95, just steps beyond the Portland city line.

Developer Waterstone Properties on Thursday unveiled broad plans and renderings for a 110,000-square-foot convention and event center at Rock Row with an estimated cost of $75 million.

Waterstone Properties is proposing a 110,000-square-foot convention and event center at Rock Row with an estimated cost of $75 million. Rendering courtesy of Rock Row/Waterstone Properties

At full buildout, the building would have an attached parking garage and hotel and connect to a 110-acre complex of shops, apartments, restaurants and offices now under development.

If a streetscape like that emerges, the chamber could support a space at the scale Waterstone envisions, Hentzel said. Though backers are certain the Portland area can accommodate the business and visitors one convention center would attract, two would be too many.

“I don’t think we can sustain two convention centers so close together,” Hentzel said. “It would need to be one or another, and frankly, we are running out of land in Portland.”

The idea of large-scale event center in Portland has resurfaced time and again over the past two decades with no development. One of the last serious proposals came in 2002 for a complex at a parking lot on Congress Street near City Hall.

A feasibility study for a convention center in Portland requested by city staff in 2018 was never conducted, said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.

A common talking point among supporters is that Maine is one of the only states without a substantial event center. There is nowhere in Portland designed to accommodate trade shows, conferences or business meetings for thousands of people. Major companies with local headquarters have to book space outside the state for gatherings.

FILLING A NEED

For some, gaining a convention center “is part of getting to a certain size and certain level of sophistication,” said Ed McKersie, president of ProSearch, a recruitment firm and chairman of the advisory board at Live and Work in Maine, a nonprofit created to attract professionals to the state.

McKersie, Hentzel and others including Lynn Tillotson, head of Visit Portland, researched the potential for a convention center for years under the Maine Convention Collaborative banner.

“Do you need a convention center? I don’t think it is imperative, but we came out with the idea that we should have something because we are at a (certain) size and scale, and there is enough attraction to the area anyway that it is something that would be successful,” McKersie said.

A complex like the one planned in Westbrook can be modified for multiple small gatherings or live entertainment, too, so it would not be confined to just large events, he added.

Tourism organizations have supported a Portland convention center to lure the business travel and events that could increase spending in restaurants and hotels and boost Maine’s profile as a destination.

Tourism has boomed in recent years regardless. Visitors are hard-pressed to find a last-minute hotel room in downtown Portland for most of the summer and early autumn. Tourists are drawn to the area’s food and beverage scene, and year-round accessibility to outdoor activities.

At the same time, hospitality businesses complain they can’t hire enough staff to stay open the amount of hours or offer the full range of services guests expect. Staffing challenges, an issue for years, have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tillotson believes a convention center could still find a niche, especially with an extended tourism season.

“We have not reached capacity when we think of the 12-month period of opportunity to keep visitation coming in,” Tillotson said. “The shoulder season is a big opportunity for groups – it is not just thinking about traditional meetings and conferences, it is dance events, gymnastics events, local meetings that just can’t happen because we don’t have a large enough space.”

PUBLIC FUNDING LIKELY A KEY

Making the convention center a reality may come down to voters’ appetite to pay for it.

“Obviously, there will need to be public money,” Tillotson said. “Convention centers don’t usually ever get constructed without some public funding.”

Waterstone has indicated it would like to amend the language of a recent state bond proposal to make it applicable to the Rock Row project.

This spring, Rep. Kyle Bailey, D-Gorham, proposed a $115 million bond to build a convention center in Portland and improve the Augusta Civic Center and auditoriums at University of Maine campuses.

The bill was carried over until the Legislature convenes in January and Bailey resigned his seat in October to pursue a career opportunity. It attracted little attention last session, with only five people submitting testimony, most in favor. Bonds need approval from voters in a statewide referendum.

Waterstone Chief Marketing Officer Greg John has said the company would like the bill to be amended so the money could be used in the Portland area, not just in the city itself.

“The convention center is a vital part of Rock Row,” he said. “We are very early in the process and will look at all funding resources, public and private, to bring this important resource to the state.”

It’s unclear whether Maine lawmakers would support a modified bond proposal. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, said Jackson was likely not familiar enough with the proposed bond measure to comment on it because it is still in the committee phase.

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.