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Fail City

The chronic dysfunction and negligence of Portland City Hall

by | Aug 7, 2022

photo/Chris Busby

In his column for us this month [“Does Portland City Hall Hate Breweries?,” p. 36], beer writer Tom Major wrote about two sets of local brewery owners who’ve had a hell of a time just getting basic business done with the City of Portland. The problems they describe with municipal permitting and other common regulatory tasks are basically the same problems City Hall pledged it’d fix back in the late 1990s, when I first started reporting on this town. A quarter-century later, there’s been no noticeable improvement in service.

You’d think that big business boogyman all the liberals think is in charge, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, would’ve used its clout to force the city to shape up. Or maybe the city manager, with their outsized salary, could be nudged do their job here, or our invisible mayor, Kate Snyder, or the city’s Economic Development Director, [position still vacant; apply today!]. 

But no. Nobody’s really in charge at City Hall, nobody’s actually accountable. Portland is a failed city, and it’s taking good people down with it. 

Ironically, this situation makes me look back fondly on two Portland City Councilors who were enemies of mine back in the ’90s when I muckraked for Casco Bay Weekly: Karen Geraghty, who represented the West End, and Peter O’Donnell, who repped the East. Say what you will about them (I’ve said plenty), but both were passionate advocates for their Council districts and fought hard for their residential and commercial constituents. If there was a problem in their neighborhoods involving the day-to-day operations of the city, Peter or Karen would barge into whatever City Hall office was in charge and get shit fixed. Former City Managers Bob Ganley and Joe Gray didn’t appreciate the councilors’ tactics, as the protocol was to follow the chain of command from the manager to the department heads and workers, but it worked. 

Looking at the clusterfuck in the heart of downtown today — the stalled Congress Square Park redesign at the intersection of Congress, High and Free streets — I daydream of the day when city staff at every level feared the wrath of a city councilor fired up with the righteous indignation that Peter and Karen could summon in a flash. (The late, great Willy Gorham, by the way, who also represented the East End on the Council, was equally adept at summoning this demon.) 

Apparently the construction contractor the city hired to tear up and rebuild the awkward intersection where Free meets Congress damaged some crucial utility infrastructure that, despite its importance, no one knew was there. Hey, it happens. People screw up. But worse, no one in charge can now say how long it’s gonna take to get a cover custom-made for one of the two underground utility vaults. This part of the redesign project was supposed to be done in mid-June so Free Street could reopen to eastbound traffic. 

Here’s where a city councilor (or high-priced mayor or city manager) worth their salt would come in handy. They’d meet with the business owners in the area who are taking a huge financial hit due to the contractor’s fuck-up — which is, by extension, city government’s fuck-up (they hired the contractor; they’re the boss here). They’d be in regular communication with these constituents regarding the progress of the project and what can be done to remedy the situation in the meantime. 

None of that’s happened in this case. Two longstanding and much beloved locally owned businesses, Marcy’s Diner and Dogfish Bar & Grille, both located within a block of the vacant construction site, are effectively in the dark regarding this situation as their revenues plummet at the height of tourist season. In an especially stupid move, the city put big orange signs at the intersection of Free and Oak streets that read, “LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY,” further dissuading visitors from accessing the plentiful street parking on Free Street between Oak and High. What the hell does “local traffic only” even mean in this context? Are cops demanding drivers provide proof of Portland residency to park there? Only the blatantly anti-gay anti-“cruising” signs still posted all over town are more aggravating to behold. 

It’s interesting that, like the Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Museum of Art, for all the supposed influence its lofty board is assumed to have, can’t do jack shit to fix this, either. And there’s one business on this block, Mathew’s Pub — which has encouraged far-right hatred and violence in Maine (and tried to destroy Mainer for exposing that) [see “The Proud Boys vs. Ferdinand the Bull,” Aug. 2021] — that I sincerely hope will close. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna watch good local businesses struggle through this alone. 

As we did when government at every level failed during the height of the pandemic, it’s up to us everyday folks to rally and help the mom-and-pop enterprises in this area endure the consequences of failed city leadership. I wouldn’t urge you to eat and drink at Marcy’s and Dogfish, or to shop at Yes Books on Congress Street, across from all the chain link and dust, if I didn’t know and love these places. There’s plenty of parking on upper Free Street for locals and tourists alike, and it’s uncommonly quiet and peaceful in this new urban oasis. Enjoy it while City Hall’s incompetence lasts! 


Chris Busby is the editor of Mainer. Phoebe Kolbert’s column will return next month.                     

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