June 03, 2020
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‘We won’t relax’: Opponents of Congress Square sale plan events, fundraising to revive park after Election Day win

PORTLAND, Maine — There is a precedent for a lively, social Congress Square.

“Back in the 1990s, when they were holding regular events here, my band was one of the bands to play here,” said Frank Turek, a musician and head of the group Friends of Congress Square Park. “I’d really like to revive that atmosphere. That was kind of the high-water mark for the park.”

Not long before that, the space at the corner of Congress and High streets was home to a one-story retail building, perhaps best known for its 24-hour chain coffee shop that locals say served as a headquarters for prostitutes and drug dealers.

The building didn’t last, but neither did the excitement of having a new public space there in its place.

After the outdoor concerts and movie series fizzled, Congress Square got back its bad reputation. When the City Council decided last September to sell two-thirds of the park to private hotel developers who promised to give it a makeover — in the form of an event center — many supporters of the move said they didn’t feel safe passing through the square and it needed a change.

Adding an exclamation point to that argument, a production manager for singer Elvis Costello was attacked and hospitalized by a panhandler in the square in November.

With a narrow victory at the polls on Tuesday for an ordinance change that will at least delay the Congress Square sale, if not block it entirely, Friends of Congress Square Park is promising not to let the square slip away again.

“The last thing we want is for anyone to think we’re returning to the status quo,” said David LaCasse, another member of Friends of Congress Square Park. “I think it will be a good summer, but I don’t think we’ll relax.”

Already, the Friends of Congress Square Park has planned an aggressive calendar of events to take place in the park, including what its members hope will be festive public showings of World Cup soccer games on a movie screen there — including a showing of the first U.S. game in the tournament on June 16.

Other events include a noontime dance party on Friday, an opportunity for children to build and decorate their own buildings using cardboard boxes on the morning of June 28, and a pancake party on June 29.

“There are going to be several local band showcases,” Turek added.

A full list of activities can be found at the Friends of Congress Square Park website, CongressSquarePark.org. These come in addition to the regular lunch rush visits by the Small Axe food truck, new seating fixtures and free wireless Internet at the site, which were introduced in the weeks leading into Tuesday’s vote.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the square was bustling with diners taking advantage of those amenities.

“We’re committed to making a world class park on this spot that Portland can be proud of,” said John Eder, a Friends of Congress Square Park board member and former state lawmaker. “We’ve made just a few moves with furniture, and this place is alive. Just imagine what we can do with a little money. … It’s the only public space in the state with free Wi-Fi as far as we know.”

LaCasse said the Friends of Congress Square Park and its supporters are planning a capital campaign “to raise several hundred thousand” dollars to maintain and continue revitalizing the square, and the preservation group Trust for Public Land is studying the feasibility of a larger fund or endowment to help upkeep all of Portland’s public spaces.

While the future of the event center proposal remains up in the air — Rockbridge Capital LLC, which spent nearly $50 million renovating the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel has yet to announce publicly whether it will continue pursuing the project in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote — opponents of the sale want to revive a dormant city committee that had been tasked with planning for the future of the square.

The referendum which passed with 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday places Congress Square and 34 other properties under a newly fortified land bank commission ordinance. Under the new protection, a citywide vote would be necessary to ratify any City Council decision to sell one of those public spaces — unless a supermajority, or eight of the nine members, of the council votes to sell.

Because the ordinance change is retroactive to before the council’s 6-3 September vote to sell about two-thirds of the 14,500-square-foot space — at a price of nearly $524,000 — to Rockbridge, a second citywide vote on the sale would be necessary for it to be completed.

The campaigns over the Question 1 ordinance change brought more attention to Congress Square than it had seen in years.

“That’s what this city needed to turn this park around, and it’s a shame it took the threat of a sale for us to realize [its value],” Turek said.

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