Friday, January 16, 2009

Pier Project Scuttled Again


January 16, 2009 Reported By: Josie Huang

What was to be one of Maine's largest development projects in years no longer has anyone to build it. Ocean Properties has pulled out of talks to redevelop the dilapidated Maine State Pier after first pitching its $160 million proposal to the city of Portland more than two years ago. "It's pretty simple. It's a business decision, " says Harold Pachios, an attorney for the Portsmouth-based Ocean Properties. Pachios says that there aren't the resources or people to manage the project.

"Over the last year or two as the recession has deepened, Ocean Properties has been in a position to invest and build and has done so and there's only so much they can put on their plate. This a very large project here in Portland, a very complex project."

The city had initially awarded bargaining rights to a competitor of Ocean Properties. But two months ago, negotiations with rival Olympia fell through. Pachios, when asked whether things would have turned out differently had the city originally picked Ocean Properties last year, said he didn't want to re-open a debate. "Ocean Properties have been on the project and was prepared to go forward, but I don't think that really makes any difference in this. I think the city tried to do its best here."

Ocean Properties is led by Bangor native Tom Walsh. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell and Robert Baldacci, brother of Gov. John Baldacci, were part of the team of high-profile Democrats that pushed Ocean's proposal. The company wanted to build a hotel, offices, parking garages and a maritime storage facility on the pier.

Portland city councilors say they are surprised and disappointed by Ocean's announcement, even as they expressed optimism for the project's future. "We know we need to fix the Maine State Pier -- that has not changed. We now need to go to the drawing board and figure out how."

Not only would the project have brought in much-needed tax revenue and waterfront jobs. It would have come with $18 million in repairs to the pier that the city cannot afford on its own. "While there is little time to lose, we will not be hasty or rash in our decision-making. I and the members of the City Council understand what is at stake and we remain focused."

The issue of who would be awarded the right to redevelop the Maine State Pier had sharply divided the council, and became a factor in the last election. That's when councilor Ed Suslovic, who supported Olympia's proposal, was ousted from his seat by Dory Waxman, a paid community organizer for Ocean Properties.

Councilor David Marshall, who opposed Ocean Properties' proposal, says that Ocean's exit means the the city can start the pier re-development process afresh.

He says the city gave developers too much leeway in directing plans for the state pier. "I think we now have an opportunity to take and have a citizen-driven process. This was a developer-driven process from the beginning and we need to go back and ask Portlanders what they want to do with their public pier."

A city spokeswoman counters such criticism by saying that the public had been invited to dozens of meetings to speak out on the topic. Next month, the city manager will present options for rehabing the state pier. The mayor says she hopes the pier could be included in the Obama administration's plan to fund infrastruture projects as part of a national stimulus package.

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