April 24, 2018
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Can a food truck, free Wi-Fi save Congress Square Park?

By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A festive orange food truck serving gourmet cuisine to go invites passers-by into Congress Square Park. With a welcoming, energetic presence, the Small Axe Truck is doing more than nourishing hungry pedestrians this spring.

It is sending a message.

“The square has long been a place for people who are marginalized,” said David Levi, owner of an adjacent restaurant and stakeholder in the park’s future. “The goal should not be to exclude, but make it appealing to all.”

The plaza at the corner of Congress and High streets has been in political limbo for years. But in the run-up to a vote Tuesday that will determine if the space stays public or could eventually be sold, it is being marketed by “yes” vote supporters as a vibrant locus for all.

Volunteer organization The Friends of Congress Square Park approached chefs-on-wheels Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy to make the contentious park their home this season. Free Wi-Fi, Parisian-style chairs in cheerful hues, were added last week. An art installation provides creative seating.

In their second year, the food truck proprietors moved from East Bayside and near City Hall to right in the line of fire. For these Scarborough residents, the move was not political, just good business.

“There are not a lot of places in the city to get outside and have lunch,” said Deuben, a chef who’s worked for Masa Miyake and at Hugo’s. “This gives people the opportunity to see what the park can be with a little effort. Just as we put a lot of thought and effort into our food.”

Despite the soggy spring, business has been better in their new location, once the heart of the city. The truck is open for lunch daily and dinner several nights a week.

“It’s a great location, a nice park, and it helps people get out to enjoy it,” said Leavy.

Beyond Korean pork belly sandwiches and curry fish bowls, live music, films and dance parties will be held in the park through August. Levi of Vinland restaurant is establishing a small al fresco dining area at the edge of the park.

“There is a lot lined up for the summer. We are working with neighborhood organizations to have viewings of the World Cup. We have Portland’s first free public outdoor Wi-Fi,” said Frank Turek, president of The Friends of Congress Square Park. “No matter what happens on the vote, it’s going to be an open park this summer. Let’s try all we can to quash the naysayers.”

If a “no” vote passes, leaving the door open for the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel to build a new event center on two-thirds of the park, the amenities will not return next summer, said Turek.

“There won’t be room for a food truck,” he said.

The hotel’s general manager, Bruce Wennerstrom, disagrees. On the contrary, the sale of the park would spur a “revitalized Congress Square,” leaving ample room for benches, food trucks and more, he said.

“If the ‘yes’ vote prevails, the way you see [the park] now is the best its ever going to be for a long time. If the ‘no’ vote prevails, it’s a win-win,” he said, adding that the proceeds from the sale will provide funding to “finish the rest of the plaza and redesign all of Congress Square, as an anchor of the art’s district.”

After years of neglect, are the new gestures this spring too little, too late?

Martin Connelly, a creative who works and lives in Portland, ordered a chicken tikka sandwich from the truck this week. Waiting patiently in the rain, was he making a political statement with his lunch?

“No, I’m just hungry,” he said, calling the truck “awesome.”

Though the More & Co. writer and photographer plans to vote on the Question 1 referendum Tuesday, his gourmet meal did not sway him, but it might have activated him.

“Public space is important,” said Connelly. “It makes me want to vote.”

With pins that say “I heart Congress Square Park” on the counter, the truck is evidence that the park can be an vital place conducive to interaction, sociability and commerce.

“We give people information, let them know there is a vote June 10,” said Deuben, distancing himself from the issue. “We were asked to be here and would like to continue to do what we are doing.”

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