Stubbornness isn’t typically looked at as a virtuous character trait, but in regards to Portland’s working waterfront, it might be the saving grace for what remains of the local lobstering and fishing industries.
As new restaurants continue to open up and luxury condos continue to be built all over the old wharves that this city was built on, rising rent costs and an ever-decreasing fleet of local fishing boats have forced more and more of the traditional marine based tenants from the waterfront.
Thanks in large part to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which was passed in the 80’s despite a strong campaign mounted under the idea that it would “destroy business”, the remnants of what was once a thriving fishing fleet still exist in Portland, but it’s fair to say that the WPO’s overall effect has been merely to discourage non-marine uses on the waterfront, rather than guaranteeing the preservation of the fishing and lobstering industries there.
Barring a purchase by the city or state of the wharves- an idea that Portland’s Deputy Harbor Master, Lance Hannah thinks, “isn’t crazy, but would probably never get approved by the tax payers”- the people who truly control the fate of the working waterfront are the wharf owners themselves.
And that’s where that quintessential Maine stubbornness comes into play.
Peter Kelly, who has owned Widgery Wharf since the boom days of the 70’s, has been approached several times over the decades by prospective developers looking to convert the historic wharf into condos.
“This wharf was built in 1777,” said Kelly, “so every time one of those developers asks me about selling, I tell them that this has always been a fishermen’s wharf, and as long as I’m around it’ll stay a fishermen’s wharf.”
By the same token, Kelly shows no animosity towards the wharf owners who choose to go a different route than him, “everybody’s gotta’ survive, that’s the way I feel about it. Most of the guys who have put condos or restaurants on their wharves have spent a lotta’ money improving the structural elements, and they’ve done a hell of a job improving things down here. But the fishermen, they gotta’ be able to tie their boats up, so that’s why guys like me and others make sure we take care of them.”
Berthing fees vary slightly from wharf to wharf, regardless of how many restaurants or condos each wharf has. Kelly charges about $11 per square foot, which I’m told is about the lowest rate, and of the dozen or so lobstermen that I asked, none of them are paying more than $13 per square foot. Some of them have to pay for parking, electricity, or storage space, but the costs are more closely correlated with the wharf owner’s desired bottom line than any sort of projected “market rate,” and that’s an extreme relief.
So much of the gentrification happening in Portland is the result of greedy developers and lackluster city leadership. Rent prices continue to soar out of control, forcing the blue collar people who make this city great to move out of town, and turning Portland into the Disneyworld/Little Boston hybrid that she is slowly becoming.
Portlanders who stand against this tide of “luxury this” and “upscale that” catch a lot of flack around town for the perceived hindering of “progress,” but for every park saved and skyscraper downsized there are umpteen other developmental projects happening at any given time.
Thankfully (and hopefully), one of Portland’s last bastions to the throwback spirit of rugged grit that has historically defined this city’s character will continue to be preserved in the working waterfront.
With the revitalized shipping industry following the landmark deal Portland made with Iceland, Hannah believes that the waterfront will see new life in the coming years, “the port of Portland was originally built as a shipping port. As that industry faded, the lobsterboats and fishing boats started occupying the wharf berths. Now that shipping is making a comeback, we’re going to see a lot of positive changes in Portland, and it’s important that we don’t forget about the lobstermen and fishermen.”
Said Kelly, “I’m almost 73 now, so I’m startin’ to get old, but my kids will take over the wharf when I’m gone, and that’s how it’ll probably go with most of the wharves. So the fate of the industry really depends on the strength of the sense of tradition that we’ve taught the next generation.”
When asked if he thinks the tradition is strong enough to sustain the industry, he responded chuckling, “as long as lobstermen are around, there will be boats in Portland. We’ll make sure of that.”