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How to save a park

An inside look at how Portland citizens rallied to preserve Congress Square
By JENNIFER LUNDEN  |  October 23, 2014

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The tension in the room on the night of June 10 was palpable. Earlier that day, Portland voters had gone to the polls to vote on a referendum that would make it harder for the city to sell Portland parks. Hanging in the balance was the fate of the embattled Congress Square Park, a small corner of public space in the heart of the Arts District.

I was there to celebrate—or to mourn—with my husband Frank Turek, the President of the Friends of Congress Square Park, the feisty nonprofit that had spearheaded this referendum. Until that night, I had met few of the key players. But I had heard about the battle to save the park from its very beginnings.

It was a nail-biter of a night. Early results had the opposing campaigns neck and neck. Finally, just after 10 pm, the results came in: the referendum had passed.

That win granted Congress Square Park a stay of execution, but the park’s future remains uncertain. Under the new ordinance, now any proposal to sell any of the listed 35 parks, including Congress Square Park, requires a supermajority—eight out of nine city councilors—to support the sale, or, if six or seven councilors support it, then it would also have to pass a special, city-wide referendum.

But the partners at Rockbridge Capital—the Ohio-based investment firm that owns the neighboring Westin Portland Harborview Hotel—still want their event center, as do the mayor and a number of Portland’s city councilors.

The battle has been covered by Maine’s media sources large and small, but none of them have adequately told the illuminating story of how a dedicated group of people—pooling their time, creativity, and resourcefulness—is winning a fight to save a beleaguered public park, despite the political and financial forces against it.

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LOCAL ROCK SHOW Miraculously, Portlanders continue to find ways to hang out in noncommercial settings.

It all started when a retired newspaperwoman read about the proposed sale in the Portland Press Herald and emailed the Parkside Neighborhood Association to ask if there was anything the Association could do to stop it. “I think it’s awful to give up any public park space and once it’s gone it’s gone,” wrote Joan Grant. “I’m afraid it will disappear without the public even knowing it’s going to happen.” It was March 2012. Grant brought her concerns to the next meeting of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, and the Friends of Congress Square Park was conceived.

At first, there were just four members—Grant; former State Representative Herb Adams; Parkside Neighborhood Association board member Pat O’Donnell; and Turek, the Association’s treasurer. Adams, one of the founders of the Friends of Deering Oaks, told the determined little group how Deering Oaks was once a blighted park—a hotbed of prostitution, drug dealing, and cruising. When I interviewed him, he said, “The City looked the other way, and a bad element walked right in in broad daylight,” which sounded an awful lot to me like what happened in Congress Square Park. The Friends of Deering Oaks was formed in 1997 to return that park to its former glory as a safe and family-friendly place, and, slowly but surely, that’s exactly what happened. And that’s what the Friends of Congress Square Park set out to do for its namesake.

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