Prohibitionist Mayor Neal Dow still haunts Portland’s streets

The Good Lord announced last call for prohibitionist Neal Dow well over a century ago, but as the following two stories show, the spirit of the tireless teetotaler lives on in the city that once made him its mayor.

In 2007, the Portland City Council imposed zoning restrictions in the Old Port and downtown that significantly limit the number of places where people can drink while enjoying live entertainment. A venue cannot have a liquor license and an entertainment license if another place located within 100 feet already has those licenses. The Old Port nightclubs that cater to the boneheads who’ve caused most of the problems were exempted from the ordinance (until, in some cases, their ownership changed), but scores of other prime restaurant and bar spaces effectively became fun-free zones due to the so-called “dispersal” ordinance.

The absurdity of this law made news in 2010, when the proprietors of the Café at Wharf Street & Wine Bar were informed they could no longer host monthly performances by Naked Shakespeare — a group of actors who gave dramatic readings of Shakespearean sonnets and plays (sans costumes, but otherwise fully clothed) — because the dance club next door had liquor and entertainment licenses. In response to the controversy, councilors amended the ordinance to allow acoustic and other non-amplified entertainment, but narrowly voted to keep the dispersal law on the books.

Enter Buck’s Naked BBQ (which also requires a shirt for service). Buck’s opened its third restaurant last year at the corner of Wharf and Union streets. When the dispersal law was passed seven years ago, this location was occupied by The Iguana (a bar that specialized in Jello shots and knuckle sandwiches) and Cake, a purportedly “upscale” restaurant and dance club that was basically a dance club with dessert. Both establishments (and a few others nearby on Fore Street) were owned by Tom Manning, a notorious figure whose mini nightlife empire crumbled not long after he was arrested for drunkenly throwing punches at police on the cobblestones outside his clubs.

Michael Boland and Deirdre Swords, the couple who own the Bar Harbor restaurant Havana, spent over half a million dollars to refurbish the Iguana/Cake space and open Havana South — a genuinely classy, Latin-flavored restaurant — in this location in 2010. The high cost of operating a restaurant with that much square footage, not to mention the high level of competition for diners in Portland, led to the closure of Havana South at the end of 2011.

Facing similar challenges, the couple that owns Buck’s, Wendy and Alex Caisse, want to lure more customers through the door with live music, like the blues played at their Juke Joint in Freeport on weekend nights. But though Buck’s is nothing like The Iguana — real food, responsible management, no test-tube shots — the dispersal ordinance prohibits musicians from even plugging into an amp on the premises.

The Old Port seems much safer than it did last decade, and crime statistics compiled by the Portland Police Department indicate that it is. But the more things change, the more the local authorities’ Prohibitionist attitude remains the same.

Last fall, Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck sent a letter to the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages urging it to reject the applications of five stores in the city that were seeking licenses to sell hard alcohol. The department included an analysis of crime data within a one-mile radius of the Hannaford supermarket by Back Cove, a state-licensed agency liquor store — an area that includes most of the Old Port and downtown.

The chief’s position is simple: more booze equals more crime. But his analyst’s attempt to link an assault on Congress or Commercial Street to the availability of liquor on the shelves of a supermarket many blocks away failed to impress the state bureaucrats. Although the bureau only granted one applicant a license (Maine Beer & Beverage Co., in the Public Market House in Monument Square), they wrote in their Dec. 27 decision that the cops’ logic was “not entirely clear.” For one thing, their report made no distinction between on-premise sellers of alcohol (restaurants and bars) and off-premise (retail) sellers. For another, the same report “clearly showed a 5% to 6% decrease in [criminal activity] reports from 2010 to 2012” — a trend that continued last year.

In a phone interview this week, Chief Sauschuck defended his department’s analysis and its conclusion. “Substance abuse causes crime — period,” he said. The chief also reiterated his support of the dispersal law, contending that the limits it places on the performing arts have actually helped revitalize the Arts District.

Mayor Dow would be proud.

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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.