Forecaster Forum: More at stake than parking in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood

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When I moved my business to Knightville in the late 1980s, it was commonly, though not affectionately, referred to as “Blightville” – and for good reason.

Ocean Street was littered with empty, trash-filled lots and industrial businesses of various stripes, such as a dry cleaner, a car wash and a run-down automotive garage. When the old Casco Bay Bridge closed in 1997, forever altering the local landscape, this area became an isolated, desolate neighborhood, virtually cut off from the travel paths of all area residents.

Fast forward to 2016.

While the pace has seemed glacial, this neighborhood has undergone a slow, steady transformation into the acknowledged gem it is today.

This has been accomplished in part by entrepreneurs and developers with the needed vision and willingness to invest their time and capital, a risk they hoped would pay dividends. In addition, and in no small degree, our recent successes are due to contributions and improvements by the city of South Portland, which has literally paved the way to what we now have: A thriving, bustling area of coffee shops, restaurants and a wide variety of small businesses, all of which bring thousands of people to our neighborhood.

Those of us who envisioned wonderful things for Knightville can now say that, to a large degree, those goals and ambitions are being realized.

Yet, with all the good which has been achieved, the city is now charting a course of action that stands to jeopardize much of what has been accomplished.

Some forces, troubled by the one-way traffic and angled parking adopted in 2012 – and revisited a year later, as promised, in a public meeting with no dissent – are pressing the city to adopt a plan that will significantly reduce parking in the prime business corridor.

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The same logic can be applied in this case: People want, and in some cases need, to park on Ocean Street because that’s where the businesses they patronize are located.

But has sufficient thought been given to the underlying dynamics, and the city’s position, in this case? The city has recently been engaged in divisive issues regarding two large, industrial businesses. These are controversial issues, and not without good reason. But why would the city take steps which will, in all likelihood, harm businesses that are, or should be, the very heartbeat and soul of our community? These are small, family owned businesses, and the very definition of “buy local.”

Take the case of Legion Square Market, which can only be described as a South Portland landmark. It has served our community well over the course of almost eight decades, and was our lifeline during the “dark” days of Knightville after the bridge closed. It has provided food for thousands of area residents, as well as countless contributions to local charities and civic groups. It is, by any measure, a good neighbor and a valued member of the community.

Then there is Cia Cafe. It can safely be said that, in the almost three decades I have worked and owned property in Knightville, no single entity has been more transformative than this destination coffee shop. It is the essence of what we all hoped to see here all those many years ago. People who could not identify Knightville on a map now flock to Cia on a daily basis. As a result, their eyes – and their pocketbooks –have been opened to the many wonders of our neighborhood: Its parks, eateries, oceanfront access and shopping options.

Both of those businesses, as well as many others, are at risk for a significant and negative impact if the newly proposed changes in traffic flow and parking take place. It requires not just substantial capital, but also courage and commitment on a daily basis to not only establish a small business, but to nurture and grow it. There is a reason most fail: The marketplace is a harsh judge, and rightly so. Should these vital businesses suffer, any “victory,” if any such outcome can be so described, will be Pyrrhic at best.

The city of South Portland should not diminish, or reverse, all the good it has done in recent years. This is the de facto downtown of one of the largest cities in Maine, and while Knightville has never looked – or been – better, we are on the cusp of even better days ahead, but only if we are allowed to succeed.

Michael Drinan owns Drinan Properties at 87A Ocean St. in South Portland.

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