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City council flirts with idea of events center with park on top

A workshop on the future of Congress Square prompted several Portland city councilors to pause and consider an events center in the public plaza, with the idea of building a park on top of the building.7-22-14-congress-sq-1
City Councilor Nick Mavodones worried that bodies such as the city's parks commission had been stripped of authority because of a public referendum in June seeking to halt the proposed sale of part of Congress Square Park.
"This community is divided and will continue to be divided on this issue," Mavodones said. "I mentioned earlier the parks commission being neutered, to some extent the council has as a result of the ordinance."
The Westin Portland Harborview completed an 18-month, $50 million restoration and renovation project prior to reopening the historic hotel.7-22-14-congress-sq-2
As the renovation took place, the city council voted 6-3 to sell a Congress Square Park parcel to these neighboring property owners.
RockBridge — the developers of the newly opened Westin Portland Harborview, formerly the Eastland Park Hotel — aimed to use the acquired piece of the park to build a 9,400-square-foot events center off the hotel. The 4,800 square feet remaining of the plaza would be the subject of a redesign and visioning process by the city, based on the city council's vote in September 2013.
Ten months later, the Friends of Congress Square Park successfully placed a citizen's initiative on the June 10 ballot, which ended up negating the sale and placing stricter standards on disposal of public parks.
As a result of a citizen's referendum, seven votes by the City Council would be needed at minimum to approve a park sale on condition that the proposal then would go to public vote. Eight council votes would allow the sale outright without a public vote. There are eight councilors and a mayor under Portland's form of government.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue said, "Is it not a critical threshold for moving forward with any variety of sale the seven votes? Have we established tonight that's possible?"
Mayor Michael Brennan said, "I didn't hear anybody tonight say they wanted to start that process at the next meeting."
But there clearly was interest in a proposal, floated in a staff memo, to proceed with the events center plan and then build a public park on top of the building.
Jeff Levine, planning and urban development director for the city, described an option that would pay to build a park on top of an events center.
"The plaza price obviously varies somewhat," he cautioned, but he estimated a cost of $1.5 million or more for a full plaza redesign.
With an events center, the cost rises, he said.
"We definitely tried to peel out what it costs to do the hybrid, an events center with a plaza that started out at ground level and worked its way over an events center," Levine said.
Rough estimates land in the $1.5 million to $2.5 million range for this "hybrid," although those figures do not include a $500,000 events center, Levine cautioned.
Asked if RockBridge would be open to the park-on-an-events-center idea, Nathan Smith, an attorney representing RockBridge, said, "I think the answer is yes, provided there is a clear understanding that the incremental costs that involves that piece, that would be something that is borne by the city, that would be public space and public cost. ..."
Mavodones said, "I'm intrigued by the concept, but it's much more bold than the other options."
Councilor Jon Hinck voiced "skepticism" that the city could place a park on an events center without causing the cost to skyrocket.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman wondered why the design alternatives had not been passed through the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, which was authorized by the city council to advise councilors about design options in Congress Square.
Leeman worried that the alternatives circulated in the memo Monday afternoon might "preempt the process."
Brennan said he instructed staff to develop the alternatives in a memo as "a stepping off point for discussion by the council."
Protect Portland Parks member David LaCasse said ample work has been done in reviewing the park, with visioning sessions and multiple meetings devoted to the space's improvement.
LaCasse said, "We would like to see it expanded to include the entire square and park. We're open to discussion."

But councilors remained interested in the idea of an events center with public space on top.

Councilor Ed Suslovic said, "I, too, find number three (the third memo option), the combination of an events center with public space above the events center — with not much of a diminution of the total square footage available to the public now — that one looks intriguing. I, too, am concerned about costs."

Suslovic also cautioned that public fundraising can be difficult when the public perceives a fundraising objective as a municipal project.

Suslovic said he was comfortable pursuing the events center with public space on its roof without channeling discussions through other panels first.

"We're the only group that is elected by the people," he said, cautioning that the process should not prevent council leadership.

"I'm not as troubled by the council taking a leadership role on this issue, like we have to do with virtually every issue, because the buck stops with us, we're the only group that is answerable directly to the people," Suslovic said.

Donoghue said the idea of building a park on top of an events center was an idea considered and dismissed four years ago.

"I guess I get concerned about going the same pathway with a park redesign that's predicated on a private deal, that's predicated on a structure, and if you don't end up completing the business deal, then you've spent even more design money and you still don't have a park," Donoghue said.

Leeman invoked "integrity and respect" for the citizen's referendum during her peppering of city staff with questions about park-improvement options.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta, when asked about the timeline to place a proposal on the fall ballot to allow the events center, said, "It's very tight, it's only a little over a month."

Asked by Mavodones about how the citizen's initiative governs city council voting regarding a proposed sale, West-Chuhta said, "It could be seven or eight. ... If you had eight votes, you don't go to the voters. If you have seven, you go to the voters. ... If you had six, under what you have in place right now, you're done. It's finished. ... You're going nowhere."

West-Chuhta said she doesn't believe a public signature-gathering effort could be employed to negate the referendum and allow a sale without the stricter vote thresholds.

"I don't see that being allowed," she said.

Under the scenario of councilors pursuing a sale, an Aug. 4 land bank review and referral and a September City Council vote could precede a public vote in November. But no firm decisions were reached during the workshop.

"I need a little more time and a little more information," Mavodones said, echoing how many other councilors felt.

Monday's workshop was the latest twist and turn in a long-running drama centering on Congress Square Park.

Last year, the group opposed to the city's plan to sell part of the plaza to the hotel developers met to discuss their strategy, and on Sept. 6, 2013, the group filed their citizen's initiative seeking protection of parks and open spaces throughout the city. On Sept. 13, 2013, the city's Corporate Counsel denied this petition initiative. On Sept. 25, 2013, the group flied a lawsuit challenging the city's rejection of the petition initiative.
Judge Joyce Wheeler ruled that the city must issue petitions to the Friends of Congress Square because, the judge ruled, the group's proposed parks ordinance falls within the guidelines of what's an appropriate citizens initiative.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 02:32

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Irish 'Minnitts' profiled in film screened this week

The Maine Irish Heritage Center will screen a new documentary called "The Minnitts of Anabeg" on Wednesday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m. The film is based on a true story about a Protestant man from a wealthy family in County Tipperary who marries a Catholic during the 1850s Irish famine.
Patrick Bergin, from "Patriot Games" and "Sleeping with the Enemy," stars in the film as Lord Goode. The main narrative thread is this Protestant man who is disowned by his own wealthy father. Shot on location in Tipperary, the film won Best Original Screenplay at the International Film Festival in Ireland. Director Alan Brown will talk about his film and take questions from the audience after the screening on Wednesday. He has a personal interest in the Minnitts, as he's a distant relative. Brown spoke from London last week about the film and how he put it together.
"It's been a few generations since my family have lived in Ireland, but I've still got family members there." he said. "I came across the story (of the Minnitts) years ago, and it took me years to research it."
The Minnitts arrived in Ireland around the time of Oliver Cromwell, who invaded and took the land from France in the 1600s, Brown said.
"The main part of the story is around the famine and how Joshua Minnitt, who is the land owner at the time, had to disinherit his son because he married a local Catholic girl. It was during the famine, and he was helping to save the community. His son ended up living in a small cottage on the corner of the land. That's really the story: this relationship, the love story this guy has with a local Catholic girl."
The crew went to the town of Nenagh in County Tipperary to shoot the film, rife with painfully ironic scenes of shiploads of cattle leaving the country while people are dying of starvation.
"The famine is the backdrop to the story," Brown said. "It's a true story about a very important time in Irish history, especially for Irish Americans - a story about immigration that tells of the critical time in Irish history."
The film is the first in a trilogy that Brown has planned around the topic of the famine.
He will begin filming the second one this fall. It's Brown's first time in Portland, Maine. He is also going to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to screen the documentary. The movie is an hour and a half long, and is suitable for all ages.

Event Details:
"The Minnitts of Anabeg"
film screening and Q&A with director
Wednesday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m.
at the Maine Irish Heritage Center
34 Gray Street in Portland
Running time is 95 minutes
$5 admission; free for members.
For more information, visit www.maineirish.com and www.minnittsatanabeg.com.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 01:16

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Pow-wow at Wells honors elders who passed

WELLS — At the 12th annual Val Ranco Pow-Wow Saturday and Sunday, empty chairs in an enclosure poignantly reminded those attending of the important elders who had died in recent days and months.7-22-14-powwow-1
Allan Neptune, Penobscot elder, died on Tuesday before the pow-wow, which sparked remembrance of even his smallest gestures.
"He was an amazing man, he had a great story, he lived a full life, he was just phenomenal," said New Hampshire Intertribal Native American Council secretary Elise Fowler. "He made these cider doughnuts," and out of respect, his vending site was left vacant during the weekend pow-wow at Wells Harbor Community Park.
"It's just the Indian way," Fowler explained, "We're saying, 'Wow, who's going to make the doughnuts?'"7-22-14-powwow-2
Sixty or more attended the weekend pow-wow, one of several similar events organized by the council, an organization representing several Native American nations in and around New Hampshire.
Fowler helped raise money for the Native American Toy Fund during the pow-wow.
"We had five different drums today, with people from different areas bringing their different types of music," Fowler said.
The gathering was marked by acknowledgement of elders who had passed.
On Facebook, the council reported on June 4, "Grandfather Chester Nez has passed over. Grandfather Nez was the last original World War 2 Code Talker and we had been Blessed to meet him in October last year, and to sing for him with the Mountain Spirit Singers. Being in the presence of this amazing man was such an honor."7-22-14-powwow-3
Fowler said, "He was supposed to be able to come to this pow-wow. He was the last original of the 29 code talkers, he was Navajo; we were fortunate enough to be with him in October in Portsmouth, and sing and drum and dance and talk and eat with him."
Also on Facebook, the council reported on May 30, "This morning Grandfather Reggie Amazeen passed over and began his journey into the Spirit World. We have all been so honored and Blessed to have him as a member of our Council and to be able to call him our Brother and friend. Grandfather Reggie's dedication to all the children he taught over 35 years as a school principal, his dedication to the People, and his love for the Native culture will be greatly missed. We will look for him in the Clouds, listen for his voice in the Wind, and know that we are all better people for just having this honor of knowing him. ... Blessings to all, Elise."
Fowler said, "He was actually an educator in the Wolfeboro (N.H.) schools for 45 years, and he was principal for many years."
Fowler added, "He was a Cub Scout leader, and a Boy Scout leader and he was a principal, and when kids didn't have money to go on a ski trip, he came up with the money. He was just a phenomenal, phenomenal meaning of 'grandfather' in our culture."
Fowler said, "We just lost three amazing grandfathers that we won't ever be able to replace."
Peter Newell of Effingham, N.H., said the annual Lou "Black Eagle" Memorial Powwow in North Conway, N.H. — Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 2 and 3 at Hussey Field on River Road in North Conway — memorializes Lou Ciarfella, another elder who made an impact.
"Lou 'Black Eagle' was one of our elders who did a lot for the children of our group," Newell said. "We would have our toy run ... we take toys up to all five reservations in Maine, and we take clothes and food and all kinds of stuff up there." Ciarfella was instrumental in that effort, he said.
On both Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 2 and 3, the gate opens at 9 a.m., with Grand Entry at noon.
Organizers expect four or five drums at the North Conway pow-wow.
According to the council, "Pow-Wow time is Aboriginal or otherwise known as the Native American Peoples getting together to join in dancing, visiting, renewing, sleeping-over, renewing old friendships and making new ones. This is a time to renew thoughts of the old ways and to preserve a rich heritage!"

For more information, visit http://nhinac.weebly.com.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 02:33

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'Nurse and Spy' author recalls Civil War intrigue

The author and retired journalist Carl Senna visited the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association library on Wednesday to discuss his forthcoming book on Emma Edmonds, a nurse and spy during the United State Civil War.7-18-14-TG-MCMA-author
Senna, an American journalist who has lived in St. John (New Brunswick) for the last 10 years, met with visitors over tea and sandwiches and cookies to talk about Edmonds and her remarkable memoir, "cumbersomely titled 'Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Comprising The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-fields, Illustrated,'" which sold 175,000 copies and whose proceeds Edmonds donated to disabled veterans, according to Senna's April 21 New York Times article.
He told the crowd that Edmonds was recruited as a spy by Allan Pinkerton, the founder of Abraham Lincoln's Secret Service.
As a nurse caring for wounded and recovering Confederate soldiers, Edmonds was able to glean valuable information for the Union. During the spy work (and earlier when eluding her father and his arranged marriage between his creditor and his daughter), Edmonds posed as a man, and one time even "masqueraded as a spying debonair gentleman so effectively that a Southern belle pursued her romantically," Senna said.
While researching Edmonds in Canada, Senna took part in Gettysburg and Antietam re-enactments, dressing up as a Union colonel in the First Maine regiment, and met his future wife, the coordinator for tourism in St. John. His work on the novel was interrupted by another book project, but he hopes to be finished with it this year.

Last Updated on Friday, 18 July 2014 00:26

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Arena GM stepping down after 36 years

After more than 36 years at the helm of the Cumberland County Civic Center, general manager Steven Crane is stepping down.7-18-14-crane-main
Now known as the Cross Insurance Arena, the performance center has held 5,416 events since Crane walked in the door in April of 1978. That includes 740 concerts and 1,547 professional hockey games.
"I did the math," Crane said from his office this week, where he was busy making bookings through the next two years. "The statistics are hard to comprehend. And it wasn't like I walked out the door at 5 p.m. I was here for many of these events."
Crane said that, while the concerts have always been the big glamorous attractions, he remembers many of the little moments, too.
"Recently, someone came by who had lost their wallet here — all their IDs, money, photos. We found it the next day," he said. "Even something simple like that: you make someone happy, and they know you cared about them."
When he was just two months on the job, the Maine Mariners won the Calder Cup Championship.
"I was blown away. I couldn't believe what a great time that was," he said. "There were some historic moments that I shared with audiences and helped make happen."
He timed his decision to retire with the completion of several recent civic center goals.
"The building's been renovated. We have a new hockey deal and naming rights. We met a lot of goals in the last couple years," Crane said. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity to step aside rather than waiting until we got busy with something else."
Crane started his career out by running the box office and event security.
"Back then, the acts wanted to be paid in cash. I would count out $75,000 in $100 bills," he said. Over the years, the hotter and more popular the act (like Kenny Chesney, Elton John, or Tom Petty, who's playing at the arena Sunday, Aug. 31), the more expensive the payout.
"We don't hire the acts, the promoters do, but in the end, we have to deliver on the building, security, and services. At end of night, they'd come up to box office to get paid. In this day and age, we use a lot of wire service, though, not cash," Crane said.
His next post was as assistant manager. He became the general manager 20 years and seven months ago.
"But the safety of people coming here has always been foremost on my mind," he said.
Over the decades, Crane said the high points so far outweighed the low ones to the point that the down times were tough to recall.
Involved in booking talent from the beginning, Crane said he would "go out there for the big concerts and feel the energy in the audience. People would remember this concert for all of their lives — Carrie Underwood, Foreigner. I can't tell you I've had a lot of low points. To be honest, I can't really identify something that made me question working here. There were tough moments and challenges, but it's one of those amazing careers where so much good happens you don't really remember the one or two times you say, 'I wish I wasn't here.' I was lucky; I had great people working for me. If there were tough moments, they were overwhelmed by the extraordinary times."
Crane said he has not stopped to consider what he will do with his newfound extra time when he retires.
"I haven't thought a great deal about it," said Crane, who turns 64 in November. "I'll probably take a little break, and go out and work again."

Last Updated on Friday, 18 July 2014 00:25

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