The Universal Notebook: Reservations about hotels

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How many more hotels does Portland need? More to the point, how many more hotels does Portland want?

Since 2012, more than 700 hotel rooms have been built in Portland, bringing the total to something close to 3,000 hotel rooms, with another 400 expected to be added by 2020.

Local folks may wonder, “Who the heck is staying in all these hotels?” But the folks building them have done their due diligence and checked out the market studies that show downtown Portland hotels posting occupancy rates of 85 percent in the summer and 60 percent year-round. So the more the merrier, right?

Wrong.

First, there are some places Portland just does not want hotels at all, such as on the wharves of its working waterfront. Eric Cianchette, who turned an old armory into the Portland Regency, was rebuffed in his efforts to build a hotel on Maine Wharf a few years back, and David Bateman, who redeveloped the artillery base on Great Diamond Island, sparked a new six-month waterfront building moratorium with his proposal to build a hotel on Chandler’s Wharf.

Ironically, the condominium complex developer Michael Liberty built on Chandler’s Wharf begat a five-year ban on non-marine development back in 1987. Residential development has been prohibited ever since. Hotels are allowed if the City Council approves, but faced with opposition on the waterfront and on the council, Bateman withdrew his hotel proposal last month.

Portland is beginning to question whether all these downtown hotels are a good thing. The gentrification of the Portland peninsula and the concomitant explosion of downtown restaurants and hotels have created a critical shortage of affordable housing in Portland, a problem the city is now proposing to help solve by imposing a $5,000 per room linkage fee on new hotels, the proceeds benefiting an affordable housing trust fund. That’s a start.

The hospitality industry objects to being singled out to pay for affordable housing, but it is a low-wage industry that contributes greatly to the problem. Restaurants and hotels employ 10 percent of the workforce in Cumberland County, but only account for 5 percent of the payroll. The average weekly wage in the Portland hotel/restaurant sector is $353, compared with $616 a week for all jobs.

The proposed linkage fees would only apply to new hotels, but it would be fairer to assess a smaller linkage fee on all of the hotels in Portland. The return on investment for hotels is three to five times what it is for office, retail or restaurant space, so when looking for new revenues, follow the money.

Portland, population 67,000, had more than 5 million visitors in 2016. Locals were outnumbered 75-to-1. It’s nice to live in a place others want to visit, but the downside of living in a tourist mecca includes traffic congestion, low-wage jobs, inflated real estate prices and resentment.

Novelist Jamaica Kinkaid distilled the essence of the Vacationland dilemma perfectly in “A Small Place,” a lament for her native Antigua. Kincaid wrote, “when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Bottom line: when it comes to hotels, Portland has to decide whether it exists to serve visitors or to support residents. The hotel boom continues, but it will inevitably go bust. One of these days, failed downtown hotels will make very fine affordable housing.

Until then, they should subsidize it.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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