PORTLAND — From his office on the city’s waterfront, Aaron Merriam, an IT infrastructure engineer, often ponders the health and future of the harbor.

Having grown up among the fishing community in Bucksport, Merriam wants to see a vibrant working waterfront when he looks out over the harbor; instead, he sees vacant building space in the district set aside for fishing activity and a steady encroachment of non-fishing businesses.

The infrastructure engineer in him worries.

“It seems like there’s a problem that needs to be solved, that no one’s solving,” Merriam said. “There’s an opportunity there.”

City planners tried a new strategy two years ago with zoning tweaks designed to support Portland’s waterfront central zone.

Previously, the city’s zoning regulations required 100 percent of the first floor space in the zone’s buildings be set aside for marine-use businesses, but wharf owners argued that they couldn’t find enough marine-based tenants to keep the zone’s 15 piers economically viable. The infrastructure was crumbling and tenants were being evicted from one pier because of dangerous conditions.

But there is much at stake.

“If you don’t have the piers, you’re not going to have the working waterfront,” said Larry Legere of Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of Portland waterfront stakeholders.

In 2010, the city agreed to alter the zoning to allow up to 45 percent of first floor space be used for non-marine business, provided building owners could prove they couldn’t find marine-related tenants. The new zoning regulations also required the city to do an annual survey to study the zone’s use.

The soon-to-be-released 2012 survey is expected to show that vacancy rates for marine-use space remains high. That comes as no surprise to building owners in the zone who have had trouble attracting marine-based tenants.

The new zoning has helped fill non-marine vacancies at Merrill’s Wharf, according to Anthony Gatti, a partner with Waterfront Maine, which owns the wharf, but much of the wharf’s marine-based space remains unrented, he said. Waterfront Maine has aggressively marketed working waterfront space. It had two potential renters, but the city rejected both for not being involved directly in the fishing industry.

“It’s not like it’s completely dead, but we haven’t been able to find the right user,” Gatti said.


The vacancies reflect the changing nature of Maine’s working waterfronts, said the Waterfront Alliance’s Legere. Portland’s once-robust groundfishing fleet has shrunk to nearly a tenth of the size it was a quarter century ago.

Portland is still the state’s groundfishing hub, but lobster boats now fill much of the berthing spaces in the commercial fishing zone, according to Bill Needelman, Portland city planner. 

Blaming the vacancies solely on the drop in groundfish landings may not reveal the complete picture, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. The infrastructure needed for fish processing also has shrunk with technology, and the city no longer is the sole hub for moving Maine’s lobster to marketplace, he said.

Even if the groundfish industry rebounded, the vacancies along Portland’s waterfront won’t fill up the same way they did in the past, Martens said.

“We have to acknowledge that we’re not going to be putting a bunch of fish-cutting houses down there,” Martens said.


The city is hoping with the survey to gather data to make informed decisions about how to shape its waterfront, Needelman said. So far, he said, it appears the landscape has shifted little since the 2010 zoning changes. It might take a few more surveys before the city can detect trends.

“We really only have two years of data to compare,” Needelman said.

With the new zoning rules, city officials are being asked to judge what is and what isn’t working waterfront endeavors. The answer isn’t always clear. A recreational fishing specialty clothing company called 12wt applied to rent out working waterfront space on Merrill’s Wharf. The process was a bit confusing, said Stephen Stracqualursi, co-founder of 12wt.

The application was wide open for legal interpretation, and 12wt was first denied before being approved. Even then, it was difficult to get an accurate picture of how much it would cost to renovate the space, and the eventual price tag proved too much for the start-up company.

12wt moved instead to Cotton Street, just off the waterfront, but Stracqualursi still hopes to move to the wharf district someday to be closer to the recreational fishing guide community.

“We would have loved to have been at Merrill’s Wharf,” he said.

With the city gaining a reputation in New England and beyond for its restaurants and pubs, demand for street level space has driven up rents. And the affordable spaces are less than desirable, said Needelman.

“There are some very low rents down there,” he said, “but those rents are in spaces that are in marginal condition.”

As Maine’s fishing landscape changes, it may become necessary for Portland to change the shape of what constitutes working waterfront, say stakeholders.

Needelman said he could see the city envisioning the possibility of new uses, like providing infrastructure support for renewable energy projects on the ocean.  Portland’s working waterfront also might incorporate more aspects of shipping and tourism alongside fishing in the future, said Martens.   

“We need to be asking bigger questions about what working waterfront looks like,” Martens said.