Big cuts, less dough at Portland’s Downtown District

When Jan Beitzer resigned last summer after eight years as executive director of the nonprofit Portland’s Downtown District, insiders whispered about a “coup” at the nonprofit organization, which was established in the early 1990s to promote downtown businesses and cultural events. Both Beitzer, who was never shy about expressing her opinions, and the organization’s board cited unexplained “personal reasons” for her departure.

But observers saw her ousting as a troubling signal that Portland’s Downtown District was moving in a more conservative, less creative direction. It was said that Beitzer had not been sufficiently attentive to the desires and demands of the landlords who pay the organization’s bills through a special tax assessment on properties within the district, which extends from Franklin Street west to Longfellow Square and also includes the Old Port.

Some feared the new regime at PDD would cut free music and arts events that cost more money than they generated, and adopt a more corporate attitude that caters to the tastes and concerns of the white-collar commuter class rather than the grungier elements who walk the streets everyday.

It now looks like those fears are legitimate.

PDD has discontinued its Weekday Music Series, which sponsored six free performances by local musicians in Post Office Park and Congress Square Park in July and August. The Weekday Performance Series, which last year included a vaudeville show, a belly-dancing performance, a hula-hoop event and other programs in those parks, has also been axed. PDD has thus ended all the arts programming it presented for many years in Congress Square, the public gathering place that both its board and new executive director, Steve Hewins, want the city to sell to the private equity firm that owns the upscale chain hotel adjacent to the park.

The Alive at Five concert series in Monument Square is being at least partially handed over to the big concert-promotion company that operates the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. Instead of five local headlining acts, the Thursday evening series will present only three shows highlighting local talent; the first show (on July 10) and the last (on Aug. 7) will feature nationally or regionally known acts, with local openers. State Theatre management will also take over food and beer sales at Alive at Five.

And the Old Port Festival is being expanded and reorganized in an attempt to attract a classier crowd. The one-day festival will be a three-day event this summer, from June 6-8, kicking off in conjunction with the First Friday Art Walk and continuing through Sunday.

In an interview this week, new PDD board chairman Michael Mastronardi said he wants the event to be more of a “festival” than a “carnival,” the latter being associated, in his opinion, with cheap, unhealthy food (like fried dough) and low-rent amusements like inflatable “bouncy houses.” He said the board would ultimately like to relegate those types of attractions to a site outside the Old Port, but this year the plan is to concentrate them at the far end of the festivities, the Maine State Pier, where PDD hopes to get city approval to have a Ferris wheel.

The “dough-eaters,” as Mastronardi called them, would thus congregate blocks away from the heart of the festival, a move intended to encourage Old Port shop owners and restaurateurs who close their businesses that day, fearing the riff-raff, to keep their doors open. Preliminary plans also include guided tours of the “working waterfront,” so festival-goers can gawk at the people who still earn a living in the industry that once defined the Old Port.

The Alive at Five schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but Mastronardi indicated the acts this year will be chosen to attract more of what he called the “working people” in the district, which he clarified to mean those on the “second and third floors” of downtown buildings — lawyers, financiers and other white-collar professionals, as opposed to the groundlings who toil in the retail shops and eateries.

(A similar desire to attract a more monied crowd led Mastronardi, who owns a block of properties at the corner of Middle and Market streets, to give Big Easy proprietor Ken Bell the boot last year in favor of former Comedy Connection owner Oliver Keithly, who’s replaced the eclectic schedule Bell presented almost every night — local hip-hop, soul and original rock acts — with a lean diet of stand-up comics and cover bands on weekends.)

As with any coup, the fate of the new leadership at PDD and its programs will ultimately be determined by the people in the streets and squares. “Let them eat cake” didn’t work so well in famine-stricken France. We’ll see how well “Let them eat dough” goes over here.

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.