Union Wharf, keystone of the working waterfront in Maine’s largest city for 228 years, is being purchased by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in a transaction that aims to maintain access for fishermen, oil spill responders, lobster wholesalers and other maritime businesses.

The wharf has been in private hands since it was constructed in the aftermath of Portland’s destruction in the American Revolution. Members of the Poole family have owned it outright since the 1950s, investing in maintaining and enhancing the working pier over a half century when much of the city’s commercial waterfront was in decline. Working waterfront advocates have feared the property might wind up in less sympathetic hands – an out-of-state developer, for instance – since the Pooles revealed they were selling it in March.

Instead the Pooles – led by brothers Charlie and Malcolm – are selling to their immediate neighbor, GMRI, a marine research institution that purchased and rehabilitated Wrights Wharf just to the west and has specialized in research relevant to fisheries, aquaculture and other maritime industries. GMRI’s bid wasn’t the highest, Charlie Poole told the Press Herald, but they chose to sell to the institute because of its commitment to remain long-term stewards of the pier as the anchor of the working waterfront. Neither side would disclose the price.

“We felt that to sell this to the highest bidder we wouldn’t be doing our jobs,” said Poole, whose ancestors have been shareholders in the wharf continuously since 1858. “We wanted to pass this on to the next generation of stewards, and GMRI is a known entity and has access to grants and government funding and other sources that we just aren’t privy to.”

“What could be better than to say we sold to the local bidder rather than to a whole new outlet from New York just wanting to get a foothold in Portland?” Poole said.

GMRI president Don Perkins said his organization decided to try to purchase Union Wharf when it became clear no private maritime commercial companies or nonprofits were coming forward to take on the challenging and specialized mission of owning and operating a working commercial pier.

“Our vision is that we will sustain the working wharf for however our seafood and maritime service community’s needs evolve and, over time will build up to bring in additional ‘Blue economy’ tenants that are marine dependent or marine oriented in one way or another,” he said.

Perkins foresees engineering or technology companies working in the marine sector occupying the upper floors of future buildings, generating revenues that help underwrite the costs of maintaining the wharf for its core uses: dock space for fishing vessels, pilot boats, and oil response teams; lobster holding and bait companies; truck loading and off-loading areas to move the products of the sea off the pier and needed supplies onto vessels. It’s the same model the Pooles and other private wharf owners use today but on a bigger scale.

“The ocean is 99 percent of the biosphere and, if you look out at the arc of the 21st century, it is an extraordinary resource that will be tapped in ways we can’t even imagine, including to feed the world,” Perkins said. “Maine is incredibly well positioned compared to other places to take part in this, but if you don’t protect the infrastructure you miss the opportunity.”

Don Perkins, president of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, stands between Union Wharf, left, and Chandler’s Wharf. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

GMRI has two decades of experience maintaining its own home on Wrights Wharf, a pier once owned by and named for Poole’s great-grandfather Augustus Wright, a coal and oil importer whose firm morphed into Wright Express, now known as Wex.

The research institute also raised money and rehabilitated a pier on its 5-acre property where the U.S. Coast Guard now docks vessels. It has incubated and spun off two successful private companies: Gulf of Maine Sashimi is focused on helping tuna fishermen harvest for the high-end Japanese sushi market, while New England Marine Monitoring develops the technology to replace human observers on fishing vessels.

Two leading figures in the Portland lobstering community said they are pleased and relieved GMRI will be taking over the property.

“I think it’s the right entity to keep the tradition the Poole family has developed, and I think that’s the intention of GMRI and their board,” said Frank Strout, a lobsterman who has docked at Union Wharf for 45 years. “The [fishing] guys I’ve talked to seem very supportive of it, and it’s nice to know your landlord will be one of your neighbors rather than some entity from New York or Chicago.”

Willis Spear, a lobsterman who has played an active role in working waterfront issues and has worked on groundfishing and oil response boats that tied up at Union Wharf, said that when he first learned the Pooles were selling he went to Perkins to let him know in the hopes he might be able to find a stewardship-minded buyer. GMRI had earned the respect of the fishing community by letting fishermen mend and store their nets on its property.

“We were hoping he’d respond in a positive way if we presented our plight,” Spear recalled. “There was the possibility of the wharf being sold to speculators, people who could afford to sit on the wharf for a period of time and then approach the city for rezoning ordinances. That’s been done before.”

Spear said he was pleased when the property went under contract to GMRI itself.

“We were astounded that GMRI went the extra mile, or more than the extra mile – the extra 10 miles to secure a place for the future of fishermen and even the future fishermen in the next generation,” he said. “It is such a positive thing. We don’t see that every day down here Commercial Street.”

Union Wharf. Photo courtesy of Gulf of Maine Research Institute

The owners of another key waterfront property a few blocks to the east, Custom House Wharf, revealed earlier this month that they have a buyer under contract, though they did not reveal who it was. Custom House Wharf – whose current tenants include Harbor Fish Market, Boone’s Family Restaurant, The Porthole, and Gilbert’s Chowder House – has been owned by the McGowan family since at least 1807.

The Pooles own Union Wharf through their ownership of the entity that built the pier in 1793, when Portland was still recovering from having been burnt by British naval forces. That entity, the Proprietors of Union Wharf, will maintain ownership of two buildings at the head of the pier on Commercial Street but will sell the remainder of the 4.2-acre property and its 11 buildings to a limited liability company wholly owned by GMRI. Charlie Poole said he hoped the sale would be concluded before the end of the year.

Because the Pooles are retaining two properties on Commercial Street – buildings that house Liquid Riot Bottling, the Japanese restaurant Sapporo and Black Tie catering – the transaction triggered a subdivision approval review from the city planning board, which will be taking up the issue Nov. 23. Poole said he did not expect any complications.

Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, said he is pleased with how the sale has come together. “When GMRI came forward with quiet inquiries, there was a degree of relief because we knew there would be continued stewardship of the pier that valued working waterfront,” he said.

“Working waterfronts are much like working forests and farmlands: they provide a benefit to communities that are not necessarily in alignment with speculative land development. So if a speculative owner were to look at a pier like that and think that the zoning may change, we could have wound up in a very contentious process.”

Don Perkins, president of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, walks along Union Wharf. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BITTERSWEET FOR POOLE BROTHERS

The sale marks the end of an era on the Portland waterfront, where the Poole family has been a major force for the better part of a century.

Union Wharf was by far the largest pier in the harbor when it was constructed in 1793, at a time when the shoreline ran along Fore Street and what is now Commercial Street was still a tidal mudflat. The initial pier extended a third of a mile across the flats to deep water, becoming the front door for much of Maine’s commerce and the anchor of its commerce with Bermuda, the West Indies and the eastern seaboard of North America.

It was here that the slain captains of the HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise were somberly brought ashore after their deadly battle with one another in the War of 1812. It’s where American privateers landed their plunder during the conflict, and where passenger steamers to Boston and smaller Maine ports departed from in the decades before the Civil War. At different times it was the primary depot for the import of molasses (for rum), coal (for heat), and salt (for packing fish) to the city.

Charlie Poole’s great-grandfather, William H. Shurtleff, took leadership of the Proprietors of Union Wharf in the 1910s, and Charlie’s maternal grandmother inherited a controlling interest when William died in 1934. Her husband, Parker Poole Sr., bought out all the non-family members in the 1950s and continued to invest in the wharf even as much of Portland’s waterfront fell into disrepair.

Charlie Poole, now 67, joined his father, Parker Poole Jr., at the wharf in 1983 and is now president of the Proprietors of Union Wharf. His brother, Malcolm, is vice president and the other majority shareholder. He said that tax laws incentivized his parents and uncle to assign shares to other family members and today three other siblings and fifteen grandchildren are minority shareholders, many of whom wanted to cash out. In January 2019, he said, they held a family meeting where they agreed to move toward selling the wharf.

“People call me up and say this must be bittersweet for you and I say that I don’t think the sweet has come, just the bitter,” Poole, who recalls climbing the mountains of salt once stored on the pier as a child, said. “It would be one thing if it was just Malcolm and myself, and if we were still in our 30s maybe we’d be able to go out and raise the capital to buy all the rest of the family out.”

He said his father had advised him he might have to eventually sell some parcels to cash out the minority stakeholders, but the market reality was that buyers wanted the full working wharf. “We think he wouldn’t like it, but he would understand that the marketplace wouldn’t just buy half if it.”

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