BY JESSICA HALL
Portland Press Herald
South Portland officials are working on a plan for an outdoor performing arts center next to Bug Light Park that would seat as many as 10,000 people.
Though the plan is still preliminary, the waterfront venue would host theater, concerts and commencement ceremonies from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said Friday.
“It could have a measurable economic benefit, with people coming in from all over to see events and going to restaurants, staying in hotels and enjoying the entire area,” he said.
The venue, tentatively named the South Portland Performing Arts Venue, would be next to the open space at Bug Light Park. It would not block the open space, Jennings said.
City officials have been working on the plan for months. South Portland got permission in the spring from Portland Pipe Line Corp., which owns the land, to explore the possibility of the venue, Jennings said. The company could not be reached for comment Friday.
The city also has approached Casco Bay Lines about ferry service to transport people to and from events and alleviate parking and traffic problems in the area, Jennings said.
No cost estimates are available yet, Jennings said. A cost-feasibility study is the next step in the planning process.
The venue would be built seasonally, operating in the summer, when nearby Southern Maine Community College has fewer students on campus, Jennings said.
It could be open by next summer if it’s approved by the City Council, said Jennings, the former general manager of the Maine Red Claws basketball team, who was hired by South Portland this year to help bring businesses and jobs to the city.
“We plan to work on this and bring it to the council early next year. There will be public feedback opportunities during the entire council process,” Jennings said. “We’re most concerned about parking and traffic.”
He noted that there is very little traffic at night in that part of South Portland, when events would be letting out. Police could direct traffic out of the area quickly, he said.
In July, South Portland hosted the Color Run, an event at SMCC in which hundreds of participants ran through clouds of colored cornstarch. That event showed city officials how much parking is available when the college is less populated, Jennings said.
SMCC did not return calls seeking comment Friday.
Jennings said, “We don’t want to negatively impact the city or its residents. We’re proceeding somewhat cautiously.”
The Portland area lacks a regular outdoor concert venue.
Last year, Portland hosted more than 15,000 fans on the Eastern Promenade for a day-long concert that included the British folk-rock group Mumford & Sons. That park hosts musical events each year, but not on the scale of the Mumford & Sons event.
The venue in South Portland would be similar to Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion on the Penobscot River in Bangor, which has attracted national performers such as Sting, Phish, Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds Five.
Some noise complaints have followed concerts at the amphitheater. Bangor officials have held public meetings to field complaints and made efforts to monitor sound levels.
South Portland City Councilor Alan Livingston said the idea for the new venue “is similar thinking to what’s happening in Bangor. … Jon’s task is economic development, and he’s trying to think outside the box a bit.
“It’s a great opportunity for South Portland to use some of the property and help people realize there’s more to South Portland than the Maine Mall,” Livingston said.
A study by economist Todd Gabe at the University of Maine showed that the Bangor concert series generated more than $30 million for the area’s economy in its first three years.
“Good positive cash flow can come from these events that can help the restaurants and stores in the area,” Livingston said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Livingston said Jennings described his vision to each city councilor, even though the plan is till tentative.
“I’m all in favor of anything that helps bring in the arts and support the arts in the South Portland community,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “It’s worth pursuing and see how all the issues such as parking and traffic pan out.”