Forward Portland’s backward facts

Forward Portland, the political action committee formed to oppose the citizen-initiated effort to save and improve Congress Square Park, is revving up its propaganda machine ahead of the June 10 vote. On its website, forwardportland.com, the PAC has a section titled “The Facts” that’s worth exploring and debunking.

First off, the PAC claims that if the chain hotel adjacent to the park is allowed to build another function room on the public’s property, that one-story building and the remaining 4,900-square-foot “park” will “help generate additional sales to Portland-area businesses each year of over $11,000,000 [and] support the equivalent of 30 FTE [full-time equivalent] jobs earning pay & benefits of more than $3,800,000.”

On a semantic note, it’s funny how Congress Square Park is commonly referred to by its opponents as a “plaza,” but the sliver of public space that would remain if the private function room were built will be a “park.”

The figures the PAC cites are not “facts” in the true sense of the word but, rather, speculation by a for-profit business called Planning Decisions, based on the speculation of the hotel chain that hired it to make these estimates. In other words, it’s guesswork based on guesswork, all done by people with an indisputable financial interest in inflating the figures.

The May 9 memo that Planning Decisions prepared for the hotel breaks its estimate into three sections. The first part addresses “investment spending” related to the construction of the singe-story, 5,000-square-foot room. The firm states that construction activity “directly attributable” to the building will amount to $5 million. That’s $1,000 to create each square foot of space. Will the floor be made of poured gold?

But wait, it gets better. “In further rounds of spending,” the memo reads, “this money will flow down the construction supply chain to other Maine businesses and to businesses selling to the workers employed by construction vendors and consumer-oriented businesses.” This gobbledygook seems to be referring to the construction workers’ lunch money, and maybe the dough they’ll spend buying new socks or a hammer while on the job. The firm estimates that spending will amount to $3.1 million (that’s a lot of lunch) and support the “equivalent” of 25 “full-time equivalent” jobs.

There’s a lot of equivocating going on already, but Planning Decisions is just warming up. In the second section, they claim the function room will generate $2 million for the hotel every year, supporting the “equivalent” of 25 “full-time equivalent” hotel jobs. This money will also “flow,” in this case “down the hotel’s supply chain,” generating another $1.4 million annually and supporting five more FTE jobs.

“FTE jobs” are not new jobs. You can’t apply for one. An FTE job is an approximation of the estimated hours of additional work someone might do if something happens. On the bright side, you can’t be fired from an FTE job, either.

In the third section, Planning Decisions gives us the fantastic news that “new visitor spending” in and around Portland will generate $7.8 million for local businesses every year and support 90 FTE jobs. But that estimate is based on the number of visitors (150,000 annually) that the hotel’s owners hope will stay at the hotel, not those who’ll use this particular function room or visit Portland specifically because that room exists. This estimated revenue also flows downward — directly to the sewage-treatment plant.

A sketch being used to promote Forward Portland's vision of Congress Square Park, in which Congress Street seemingly disappears.

A sketch being used to promote Forward Portland’s vision of Congress Square Park, in which Congress Street seemingly disappears.

OK, back to the “facts.”

“Revitalizing Congress Square doesn’t mean ‘losing’ open space,” the PAC states on its site; “it means gaining a vibrant 4,800 square foot new open space and an additional 4,000 square feet of redesigned sidewalk space.” The logic here is absolutely magical. Two-thirds of the park becomes an enclosed, private room, but no “open space” is “lost.” And sidewalks now count as “open space” for the public to enjoy. Why not throw in all the square feet of street nearby? That’s “open space” too, right?

In the “Why Vote No?” section of the PAC’s site, it asserts that the citizen initiative “retroactively undoes years of public process to revitalize Congress Square Plaza.” Actually, the closed-door negotiations between the hotel’s out-of-state investors and city bureaucrats “undid” years of the city-appointed task force’s public process to improve the park.

If the initiative passes, “why would any future investor want to go through the same process in Portland?” the PAC asks. It then answers its own question: “Very simply, they won’t, and Portland’s economy will suffer.”

If by “same process” they mean “buying public parkland for private development,” then we can only hope the PAC is right about that one.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.