On the Death of Conventions and the Start of Portland’s Green Future at Congress Square Park

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          This week, the Portland City Council will be voting whether or not to sell a public park to a private developer for the purpose of building an additional hotel convention center. Last year, the council voted to spend over $31 million in tax dollars to create the new Thompson’s Point Complex with an additional convention center.

         According to the Brooking’s Institute, convention spaces across the U.S. have increased by fifty percent in the past twenty years.  Over the past ten years, spending on U.S. convention spaces has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, most of which comes from public coffers.  The problem is that the actual number of businesses hosting conventions has steadily fallen over the past fifteen years. Attendance at the largest 200 conventions peaked back in the mid-1990s. At the same time, developers have talked local and city governments into financing more spaces, effectively over-saturating the market.

          Due to the popularity of Skype and online conferences, businesses no longer need to hold physical conferences and spend money on travel and lodging at physical conventions and meetings. If urban developers and City Council were to look at the economic failures of large investments in convention spaces, they would find examples in almost every major city that has jumped on the convention bandwagon. Major commercial centers such as New York City, Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta have all had significant loss in convention activity, despite expansion. Even recent centers in Orlando and Las Vegas have received fewer visitors despite massive investments from taxpayers. If major cities can’t compete for remaining conferences, what chance does Portland, Maine have?

          By contrast, urban developers in the U.S. are finally catching up to the reemerging trend that city planners have known for centuries- public parks create happiness, commerce, leisure, and health in congested and often polluted urban areas.  Food gardens, green spaces, and fresh air are all the rage in popular parks.

         During the era of “urban renewal”, Portland sold off chunks of its public parks, including Lincoln Park and Deering Oaks, in order to make room for more cars and more business on the peninsula. Unfortunately, a comparable space has never been restored and the sale of Congress Square park would be the first time that a town in Maine has sold a majority of an in town park to private developers.  With the certain death of conventions, Portland developers and the City Council must stop looking to the past and start looking to our greener future. 

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About hollyseeliger

My name is Holly Seeliger and I am a political blogger and consultant. I am a current member of the Portland School Board.
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5 Responses to On the Death of Conventions and the Start of Portland’s Green Future at Congress Square Park

  1. As a former Portlander, I am bummed to hear about this park going away. Sure, it wasn’t the best park in town but it was nice to have the space in the city. It could’ve been transformed into something so beautiful!

  2. Steve Hewins says:

    Hey Holly – I heard you present this view last nite at the HCDC meeting and I respectfully could not disagree with you more. I understand your view that public property should not be sold, but tying this to a “death of conventions” could not be farther from the truth and is not the right argument to make on Congress Square. You may not have seen this article in today’s USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2013/08/21/top-50-destinations-for-meeting-planners/2681695/
    Since the short decline during the great recession, the convention business has been booming and the Westin knows this which is why they are pushing for this facility. With $50 million in private money already invested in this historic property, they would not do this lightly! Portland is actually in the ‘sweet spot’ for moderate sized meetings. I am also a huge proponent of the Arts District and firmly believe that this is the catalyst that will finally reboot this area and help the artists, merchants and organizations in this part of town succeed. I probably will not be able to sway your view on this sale, but would welcome the opportunity to share ideas going forward. Best, Steve

  3. Steve H says:

    Portland is changing for the better. The creative economy, hospitality and tourism, and the 21st century waterfront is driving growth now. There is no turning back on this and actually none of this is really new, as throughout its history Portland has relied on these three attributes that exist in few urban centers in the US. My hope is that people will stop battling change and advancing the vague concept of ‘gentrification’ and rather be participants in the really exciting things that are going on in this town.

    As a school committee member, you recognize better than anyone the struggle to pay for school infrastructure and education in Portland. Wasting precious resources on lawsuits to save vacant spaces like Congress Plaza does not help the city meet these needs! In my view, we need a pragmatic approach to growth and new community leaders that are able to support these kinds of tough decisions and not present unrealistic roadblocks to any effort to balance school and housing needs (RE: Nathan Clifford School, supported by nearly every member of that neighborhood community).

    Instead of wasting energy and time trying to save a failed ‘park,’ I wish these people would instead focus their attention on working to turn Congress Square into a centerpiece of exciting urban planning that balances some open space with the needs of artists, merchants and visitors to the Arts District. Those committed to open space would better apply their talents in joining me, and a growing group of people, looking to restore Lincoln Park, which has true historical significance to Portland as the city’s first public park created just months after the great fire of 1866. Please feel free to contact me if you ever wish to discuss any of these issues in more detail. Steve Hewins, PDD Interim Executive Director

    • hollyseeliger says:

      Hello, Steve!
      I am glad that you have taken interest in my blog! Perhaps you are unaware, but the Friends of Congress Square Court case and referendum includes protections for over thirty parks on the peninsula. That means that the court case and referendum includes protections for Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park is a prime example of how the Portland City Council and businesses create gentrification by giving away public parks. During “Urban Renewal”, nearly half of Lincoln Park was destroyed to build the Franklin Arterial!
      Take a look at the site which details the history of the land before the arterial

      http://franklinstreet.us/the-franklin-reclamation-authority-fra/history-of-franklin-arterial

      To this day, the City has not replaced this land, and the shadow of gentrification still haunts the Franklin Arterial and the lost “Italian District” to this day. I would love to combine forces with the Portland Downtown District to improve Lincoln Park, and look forward to hearing what your plans are.

      • Steve H says:

        Nice to hear from you Holly!

        I’m always interested in how people use words – particularly ‘gentrification’ in this case. The word does not automatically connote a negative, but I know its often portrayed that way. Redevelopment, as in the current Congress Square case, can be a good thing – especially if it will create more property taxes and stimulate jobs in the Creative Economy and Hospitality Industry, which are key parts of Portland’s economic plan. Some gentrification can be bad, of course, as in the creation of the Franklin Street Arterial, which destroyed neighborhoods and cut the city down the middle. Hind sight will always point out these errors. The key to history in my view (as a US History major many moons ago…), is to use mistakes of the past to articulate the future.

        My point to you in the post is this: instead of urging people to be dogmatically wedded to an argument simply based on the principal of protecting a failed open space or all open space, a more pragmatic course of action is to be part of creating a new legacy. Lincoln and Congress Square are diametrically opposite issues and compare little to each other, except that both were urban renewal disasters! This is why I, and many others, can easily be an avid supporter of restoring Lincoln Park, while being just as committed to redeveloping Congress Square. Best, Steve H

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