PORTLAND, Maine — Organizers who took to the polling booth to block the private sale of a downtown park about one year ago on Wednesday celebrated a $100,000 grant to support programming and improvements in the square.
The group Friends of Congress Square Park held the event to mark the beginning of weekly events throughout the summer, a program that Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said shows the group “kept a promise to be good stewards of this space.”
Congress Square Park, near the center of the most densely populated square mile in the state, became a focal point for discussion about city planning and the maintenance of Portland’s public spaces and parks.
Frank Turek, the founding president of the group, said the $100,000 grant from the “Heart of the Community” program funded by Southwest Airlines and supported by the Project for Public Spaces would have been hard to imagine a year ago.
“We could have never envisioned this level of support,” Turek said. “Everything that could have fallen into place fell into place in the right way.”
After the city agreed to sell the park to the adjoining hotel developer, the group organized and won a referendum to block the sale and kept the square busy during the summer months with public World Cup soccer viewings, dance parties, free wireless Internet and a food truck.
Herb Adams, a founding member of the Friends of Congress Square Park, a historian and former state representative, said Wednesday he thinks that fight will be remembered alongside the battle over a waterfront zoning ordinance in the late 1980s.
“That, too, started with petitions to government,” Adams said. “The citizens rose, they loudly petitioned the government, and city government and developers pushed back. But at the end of a long process and a suit that went all the way to the [Maine Supreme Judicial Court], the citizens prevailed.”
Adams said he thinks the fight over the park will have a lasting impact on planning discussions amid economic pressures, despite the Congress Square fight dealing narrowly with the sale and use of public parks.
“I think as we emerge from a recession — a long recession — and development money flows back into the city, these new processes will enable caring citizens who have a lot to say about the future of their living space [to have influence] rather than just have the process driven by money and profit,” Adams said.
Brennan said the redevelopment of the park stands to “revitalize” the downtown and demonstrated the benefit of public-private partnerships, saying the city alone could not have done the work to improve the park and schedule events.
The Friends of Congress Square Park now operates as a nonprofit to manage amenities such as free WiFi, park benches and other installations.
Jamie Parker, a member of the city’s Parks Commission, said he attributes the redevelopment of the park in part to the city’s decision to sell most of the 14,000-square-foot plot.
“Almost losing something is a way to appreciate it anew,” Parker said.
The nonprofit organization that now manages the park has a slate of events planned throughout the summer, ranging from yoga to concerts and movies.
David LaCasse, current president of the nonprofit group, said the grant “is a validation of our efforts.”