Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sinclair may have violated state law

Published in the Portland Phoenix

While the contract negotiations between union workers at WGME Channel 13 and the TV station’s parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, have stalled, the union’s attorney is investigating allegations that Sinclair failed to obey a Maine law requiring employers to pay workers within eight days of the close of a pay period.

'GME frequently pays part-time workers and overtime wages for full-timers as much as 16 days late, according to Matt Beck, shop steward for the union, IBEW Local 1837, which represents off-camera employees such as video photographers, editors, and producers.

Jonathan Beal, a labor attorney working for the union, said he has begun discussions with the station, and is holding off on filing a lawsuit until more conversations take place.

Sinclair attorney Michael Lowenbaum did not return phone calls seeking comment on the pay-period dispute, and station manager Alan Cartwright declined to comment.

Labor negotiators have not met since the summer, though both sides say they are ready to talk “at any time.”

The workers have gotten support from other local unions, including the stage workers at the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Portland Newspaper Guild, the Southern Maine Labor Council, the Teamsters, and local painters and machinists unions.

The WGME workers are waiting for Sinclair to respond to a request the union made for evidence to support Sinclair’s assertion that WGME staff members are among the best-paid in the company.

Some would say they should be: Jason Nelson, a video photographer, was just named the best video photographer in New England by the National Press Photographers Association, the only Sinclair journalist so honored this year.

Other WGME employees have been part of productions that have won awards from Emmys on down to Maine Association of Broadcasters honors, according to Beck.

Beal said the company is conducting a survey of its workers in response to the demand for more information, but said that information will be less useful than the station-specific and position-specific information the union wants.

Beck said union members are worried Sinclair may declare an “impasse,” and then impose the most recent contract offer, which is not acceptable to union members.

Cartwright declined to comment on the state of negotiations, or even on the awards won by his staff, saying his attorney had instructed him not to discuss “ongoing negotiations.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Good soundbreaks make . . . Hotel vs. Club

Published in the Portland Phoenix

After being neighbors for more than five years, the Portland Regency Hotel, owned by Eric Cianchette, has sued the Alehouse, a tenant in another one of Cianchette’s buildings, saying the club generates too much noise and disturbs hotel guests.

Cianchette said the noise generated by the Alehouse, a space once owned by Cianchette and operated as "Eric's," is "affecting a lot of [hotel] customers," but said "I don’t know much about" the lawsuit.

The hotel’s general manager, Jill Hugger, didn’t know anything about the suit, though she said noise from the Alehouse has been a problem for a long time. She said the hotel has to give people free overnight stays "a lot" due to the Alehouse’s noise, but would not be specific about how often or how much money was involved.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, is similar to one filed by Cianchette's company, ELC, in 2001, to stop the Alehouse from holding any live-music performances. A judge then found in favor of the Alehouse, a ruling that was upheld on appeal. The recent suit does not include any specific dates or times of noise problems, though a filing by Alehouse owner Russ Riseman claims he has received only two complaints about noise from the hotelone in the summer of 2005 and another in the fall, and none from other neighbors.

Gerald May of Perkins Olson, the lawyer representing the hotel, said he had "no comment" and hung up the phone when asked whether the suit would be dropped because of the Alehouse’s recent steps to lower the noise level.

On the very day the suit was filed, Riseman was arranging the installation of $2000 worth of soundproofing material and for sound engineers to hourly test the noise level outside the door of the Alehouse and at the front door of the Regency, in response to a complaint from the hotel, he said.

Filings on Riseman’s behalf claim that the sound engineers’ readings are now at or below the city’s legal limit of 58 decibels, about the level of a normal conversation. "We have meetings with the Regency every single night," Riseman said, illustrating his efforts to solve the problem.

Some of the noise may be due to customers who leave the Alehouse to smoke and converse outside, but he said there's nothing he can do about that because he can't allow smoking inside and the customers have the right to smoke on public sidewalks.

Riseman said he feels that Cianchette wants the Alehouse to move, and said "I'll go willingly" to another place if one is affordable. But, until then, he's going to fight, heartened by his success in 2001. "If we lose, we're going to lose because I can't afford the litigation," said Riseman, who added that he is getting a discounted legal rate from local lawyer Dan Skolnik—"but it's not free."

Monday, January 9, 2006

Theater eyes armory

published in the Portland Phoenix

The South Portland armory could become home to the Children’s Theatre of Maine and other arts organizations, if a deal floated earlier this month pans out.

John Kaminski, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum MacMahon in Portland, is representing a group of people who have asked him not to reveal their names, “who are supporters of children’s theater,” and who want to give the kid-oriented nonprofit a permanent home in the building, now owned by the Museum of Glass and Ceramics. The museum is having its assets liquidated in federal bankruptcy court.

The idea is similar to one proposed in the Phoenix (see “Armory Arts Center,” by Jeff Inglis, January 6), which was cited by several sources for this story as a motivating factor for interest in the property.

Pamela DiPasquale, artistic director for the Children’s Theatre, said the group now rents three separate spaces, a 5000-square-foot theater, a 1200-square-foot office, and the “quite big” Levy Day School for summer-only programs. She said the group has been looking to move for some time, and offered $800,000 last year for a Westbrook building ready for the group to move in.

That deal fell through, leaving the theater in its existing year-to-year rental, with options to renew, and ever-climbing rent, she said.

Wednesday, after the Phoenix’s deadline, the judge overseeing the case was expected to approve a process by which the armory sale could be completed as soon as March 22. (The sale needs to cover at least $600,000, the amount of secured debt on the armory.)

On February 1, Kaminski and his group agreed with the museum’s bankruptcy trustee — subject to the approval of the judge overseeing the case — to buy the armory for $625,000. The agreement, which would specifically allow Kaminski to transfer ownership of some or all of the building to the Children’s Theatre, also allowed the bankruptcy court to accept bids from other prospective buyers. Fred Bopp III of Perkins Thompson, the lawyer for the bankruptcy trustee, has asked the judge to schedule a final sale-approval hearing for March 22.

Copies of the agreement between Bopp and Kaminski were sent to others who have expressed interest in the armory, including the Islamic Society of Portland (which could not be reached for comment), developer Greg Boulos (who withdrew his own $625,000 offer for the armory late last year), Portland attorney Larry Clough of Tompkins Clough Hirshon and Langer, and Ted Quinn of Ingalls Commercial Real Estate.

Clough said his client had offered $600,000 cash about six weeks ago, with a quick closing and no contingency for zoning changes on the property, which has some restrictions that could make a commercial venture there difficult. Clough declined to identify his client, and said the person was not interested in entering a bid for more than $625,000.

Quinn said he had e-mailed a link to the Phoenix’s story to an out-of-state client looking to move to Greater Portland. “There is still interest,” Quinn said, though his client, whom he declined to name, would need a zone change, and “the lack of parking could be a big issue.”

Quinn was slated to look at the property earlier this week, but could not be reached before the Phoenix’s deadline.

Attorney Kaminski sounded the way Bopp described himself — “cautiously optimistic” — and said his group is expecting “to get a lot of support from the city” of South Portland, which has itself expressed interest in the building from time to time, and may be asked to grant a zoning change to allow the museum or another group to use the building. City Manager Jeff Jordan did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

And the deal could still fall through, as Boulos’s did — Kaminski has until the end of March to pull out of the deal if he is unhappy with the building inspection, the zoning situation, or a parking agreement with Central Maine Power, which owns an adjoining mostly-vacant lot.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Armory arts center: South Portland's vacant landmark could be reborn as a cultural icon

published in the Portland Phoenix

A 25,000-square-foot building sits on just shy of three acres at the foot of the south end of the Casco Bay Bridge. Vacant since 1996, the former South Portland armory remains in limbo. its owner, the moribund Museum of Glass and Ceramics, declared bankruptcy last year, before ever moving in.

Even a wealthy real-estate developer, Cape Elizabeth's Greg Boulos, a partner in the Boulos Company, one of Maine's largest development firms, last month withdrew an offer to buy the building. He had not expressed any specific plans for the building.

But the armory would be the perfect spot for a multi-disciplinary arts center, with room for a performance-and-exhibition space, soundproof rehearsal rooms, photo darkrooms, small offices for business activities, and ample parking.

All of those things are needed in greater Portland, and an arts-oriented developer was interested enough to want to tour the building after hearing the idea.


The building is in a landmark position at the entrance to South Portland, an area used to lots of traffic, where attracting more wouldn't be a real problem.

There is room for parking on the armory property, as well as on an adjoining lot owned by Central Maine Power (CMP).

John Carroll, CMP's manager of communications and company relations, said the company had been in talks with the museum about using some of CMP's land — a transmission corridor under high-tension power lines — as a parking area. Carroll said the company would be "open to" discussing a similar arrangement with another owner of the building.

But the real possibilities are inside.

The building's formal entryway, with three doors facing the bridge, is a beautiful space, with wood paneling and brick features reminiscent of government buildings of the early 1940s — when public spaces still sported some degree of grandeur in addition to cheap functionality.

Paint flakes and pieces of broken drop-ceiling tile crunch underfoot in the lobby, a bright space on a rainy day, even with no overhead lights.

Facing the entrance is a reception-style office, with a sliding glass window and side door. To the left is a large space with two offices and a storage area. To the right is a three-office suite with a storage room. (On the wall in one of this suite's offices is a phone jack labeled in red "Hot Line President.")

A hallway runs the width of the building, with small offices and what is now storage space off of it. With a little plumbing, the windowless storage rooms would be excellent — and roomy — darkrooms.

Upstairs is another pair of office suites, with funky skylights in the ceiling. Across the hall are two viewing galleries, long rooms with windows overlooking the building's star attraction: a full-size basketball court, 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a double-height ceiling complete with steel beams for rafters.

On each side of the ground-floor entrance to the court are storage areas or small offices.

And running the length of the court on both sides, behind massive garage-type doors, are equipment bays once used by the National Guard to service their vehicles. There are storage spots here and smaller offices, like parts desks at a car dealer.

A group of arts organizations, or individual artists, all looking for office space, gallery or performance space, or even just a conference room to hold business meetings, could get together to purchase the building. Each of them could have some office space, sharing the gymnasium area, which could be easily refitted into a performance space with shared lighting and technical equipment. A part of the gym could be made into a conference room, or even a small gallery for visual arts. The equipment bays could be walled off and made into music-rehearsal spaces.

The common spaces could also be made available for rental by other groups, on a shared-revenue model or even at a flat fee, to help generate revenue.


Starting with the obvious, the entire building could use a floor-to-ceiling paint job.

There are a couple of small bathrooms, but nothing on the scale of what would be needed to serve a performance audience. There no elevator to the second floor. And there is no central heating-system — for some reason the National Guard took it when they left.

But the armory building could be had for $20 a square foot — a bargain-basement deal if ever there was one. The property has outstanding mortgages and taxes due totaling right around $615,000. It is valued at $600,000 in the museum's bankruptcy filing, though the city assessor's office rates it at $515,400.

Boulos had offered $625,000, but pulled out after failing to get an extension to a 45-day deal, according to bankruptcy trustee William Howison, who has control of the building until it is sold. Howison said Boulos wanted eight months to get permits to develop the property.

"He wanted more time and I wasn't willing to agree to it" because a Chapter-7 bankruptcy is supposed to be a relatively quick liquidation of assets, rather than a months-long process, Howison said. Boulos was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Fred W. Bopp III, an attorney with Perkins Thompson who is representing Howison, said the deal should at minimum pay off the mortgages and taxes, and ideally would generate some additional income to pay off other creditors the museum has.

"We are still trying to see if we can put together a sale that makes sense," Bopp said. Neither he nor Howison would talk about how much interest, if any, the building has generated. No offers other than Boulos's have been filed with the bankruptcy court.

What could be done with the building "depends on how much money you have," Howison said. The building is zoned as a residential property, allowing no more than four housing units per acre, or a church, school, museum, or municipal building. It also could allow "recreational or community activity buildings" if they were run as non-profit organizations.

For certain uses, a buyer might need to get a zoning change or variance from the city, though the property is in a high-traffic area next to the fire and police station and across Broadway from a busy shopping area.

The zoning has limited "somewhat" interest from developers, Howison said.

If he cannot sell the building, he will have to get the mortgagors to accept less than their full investment as repayment, or let them foreclose and perhaps auction the building.


The amount of money involved is a good fit, according to David Shorette, treasurer of the Children's Theatre of Maine, which offered roughly $800,000 for a building in Westbrook last year.

"We'd like to buy a building" and "$600,000 seems quite doable," he said. "I think the location is perfect," though it may have asbestos, which could increase the cost of renovations.

Shorette said there is a need for more room for artists to work and practice. His wife is a dancer, and groups with which she performs are always trying to find rehearsal space and end up changing locations and times often to make schedules work.

The city of South Portland has been interested in the building for a decade. It offering $250,000 for the armory to the state in 1996, then upped its offer to $350,000 in 2001. The city is considering whether to make another offer now.

According to South Portland city attorney Mary Kahl, the armory building has been discussed as a possible new home for the public-works department or for offices for South Portland's city-hall, both of which agencies are slated for new facilities or relocation.

South Portland mayor Maxine Beecher said one problem could be parking — though a CMP agreement could help — and another could be access, because the site is right off a busy intersection with traffic-control islands preventing people from turning into it when heading west on Broadway.

She said there has been talk of housing small art galleries in the building, but zoning restrictions were an unknown factor (though such use might be allowed if the building was owned by a non-profit group).

"I always wanted us to have it" for the city, she said, with the idea of keeping a part of it — including the picturesque front facade — and possibly selling a portion of the property.

Beecher said she liked the idea of drawing more artists to the city and said the schools might be able to get more involved with professional artists and creators.

Artists are looking for more space.

An idea like this one has already been "floated about," according to Jessica Tomlinson, who is active in several capacities in the arts community, including as director of public relations at Maine College of Art, a board member at the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, a member of Governor John Baldacci's council on the creative economy, and a member of the Maine Arts Commission.

"Portland is just getting really pricey," which means "So-Po starts becoming really attractive," she said. A lot of people go to restaurants and beaches in South Portland, and "I think we're going to see more shifting" of arts as well.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the armory, Tomlinson said.

"It's located in the middle of a massive intersection," which could be a problem for some tenants seeking quieter quarters.

Tomlinson said the building's purchase price is not a real obstacle, but the costs of renovation could be prohibitive.

The building could meet many needs, however. "We still need a black-box theater in this town," and more dance space and rehearsal space would be snapped up quickly, she projected.

Such a building could allow for the "consolidation of resources" — e.g. sharing the cost of a receptionist and even a staff accountant — and owning a building could provide artists with better security for their businesses, she said. "We're all struggling alone in similar ways" trying to protect investments and provide for the future, she said.

Tomlinson liked the idea if the offices were handled on a condominium-style plan, where artists or groups owned their own office space and then paid monthly fees to handle upkeep of the building's common spaces.

She foresaw some trouble with the actual organization of such a project. "Arts organizations have incredible personalities and needs" but those sometimes stand in the way of organizing, she said. Turning the space into a working artist's center would require leadership, including "a small core committed group of individuals" plus some "lightning rods" who have the skills to handle complex tasks like funding and permitting.

"Portland really lacks those true arts champions-slash-heroes," she said. "All the ingredients are here," but "we just really need a cook."

Tomlinson said she is "looking for some new energy" from people who have done this sort of thing before in other places.

Tanja Hollander, one of the organizers of the Bakery Photographic Collective, shares Tomlinson's concern about organization.

"Organizing artists is one of the hardest things to do," she said. "Everybody has their own ideas."

The Bakery group, of about 20 people, have "talked about buying something," but that's years in the future if at all, she said. The group now rents space in a Pleasant Street building.

Hollander also liked the condo-style idea, where "everybody owns their own studio." That, she said, would free up time for artists to be artists, rather than building administrators and contractors.

"In theory, I think it's a great idea. In practice I don't know how that would work," especially if the artists didn't know each other going in, she said.

"I think that artists should really think about owning their studios," though she admitted that because of property costs and artists' income, "a lot of artists don't think that they can buy anything."


Mike Levine of Acorn Productions made a brief business model for a similar idea a couple of years back, but didn't get very far because financing was too big a challenge for him to handle with his other commitments.

"There is a lot of interest in the arts community," he said, including from groups without office, performance, and rehearsal space.

His bigger question was "do you build the collaborations first ... or do you just sort of take the plunge," what he called the "Field of Dreams" approach, where a person or group goes out and creates an artists center and then hopes the artists come.

Levine has decided for himself that he will seek a smaller rehearsal space for Acorn, and then see if other groups or artists want to collaborate and potentially share it.

But in his research for the business plan, he found artists and musicians and others were already paying between $40,000 and $50,000 a year in rent for creative space. For him that meant enough money to rent or buy about 1500 square feet in Portland, covering not just rent but also utilities, maintenance, and other overhead, including possibly a skeleton staff.

Such a project would "need someone who's willing to be a tireless exhorter." Levine expressed willingness to be involved "but not as the lead person."

He said he had also considered partnering with a retail business such as a bar or a coffee shop to generate consistent foot traffic.

His estimates did not include a capital campaign, which he said would be made harder if the building — like the armory — did not have an official designation as a historic building. He said grants for the St. Lawrence Arts Center were easier to come by because the group there was not only creating an art space, but was restoring a dilapidated historic site.

Levine warned that "the bigger the space, the harder the project is to pull off," and said his research into similar ideas showed "the only successful ones were where the city bought the building and leased it to the non-profits for a dollar a year." That freed up rental income for paying off construction loans to refit the building.

"If the city of South Portland wants to do that, I'm sure there would be a lot of interested parties," he said.

The city may be interested, but there is a commercial developer also curious about the idea.

Charlie Hewitt, a painter, printer, and sculptor born in Brunswick and now back in Maine after many years in New York City, estimated a group would need to collect $150,000 for a down payment and come up with $4000 to $5000 for mortgage payments every month. Hewitt is now at work developing high-end artists' live-work condos on Congress Street, and said that model would not be profitable given the space and condition of the armory building.

But as a group of shared offices with a large common space — even split up to handle several uses — the armory model could work, he said.

The equipment bays off to the side could be rented or even sold as storage spaces, potentially making up the whole down-payment amount.

Some organization with some good backing would need to hold the mortgage, Hewitt said. A group of organizations working together could get their separate backers each to put up some small portion of the money, and would still generate plenty of capital, he said.

Sharing the monthly costs among several groups could mean as many as 12 organizations or artists paying between $300 and $400 a month to own and maintain their own spaces.

"That much space could create a whole cultural scene," possibly bringing architects and other independent professionals into closer proximity with working artists, he said.

The large gym could be split into three black-box theaters, sharing lights and sound equipment, running in repertory. There would also be room for an 800- or 1000-square-foot gallery for visual arts, as well as a conference room, he estimated.

Hewitt liked the idea so much he considered taking the lead on the project, and wanted to see the building's interior.

"It's a good old-fashioned artist's idea that's going to be challenging everybody to use it," he said.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Senators fight snooping: Our voices in Washington, DC

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine senator Olympia Snowe is leading the charge to find out why President Bush authorized spying on US citizens without bothering to seek the approval of the secret federal court that generally rubber-stamps requests for the surveillance of Americans.

After a New York Times report that Bush allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept phone calls and emails between US citizens and people overseas who have been linked to terrorism, Snowe and four other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee called for a congressional investigation.

The NSA is charged with intelligence-gathering outside the country, but can seek warrants from a secret federal court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, to spy on American citizens in the US.

Bush’s order, in effect since 2002, has drawn concern from judges on the court over whether information gathered without a warrant has been used later to justify other intelligence operations in the US, the Washington Post reported last week.

Citing a second-hand report from anonymous informants, the Post reported that the court granted 1754 warrants in 2004 and rejected none.

One of the FISA court’s 11 judges, James Robertson, resigned, apparently in protest, but will keep his seat on the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

Snowe, another Republican senator, and three Democrats have called for a joint inquiry by the Senate’s judiciary and intelligence committees. Judiciary committee chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has said he will begin those hearings in January.

Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican and the chairman of the homeland-security committee, is also concerned about the situation and has asked for a briefing from the NSA, as well as a congressional investigation. Her committee does not have jurisdiction over the NSA.

Bush administration officials have repeatedly said Bush did not break any laws by approving the surveillance of US citizens without the agreement of a judge.

The revelations about spying hindered the passage of a revision to the USA PATRIOT Act, whose name is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”

The House approved a four-year extension to the act, with some revisions, on December 14, over the objections of Maine representatives Tom Allen and Mike Michaud.

Snowe and Collins sought a three-month extension of the existing law, to allow lawmakers to make more revisions to protect civil liberties. When a compromise was introduced — over Bush’s objections — to extend the law for six months, Snowe and Collins both agreed, but the extension was reduced to five weeks in a last-minute exchange between the House and Senate, with most members of both bodies already at home for the holidays.

On another front, when Snowe and Collins are asked their position on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they will be able to answer, John Kerry-like, “I voted for it before I voted against it.”

Last week, both Republican senators from Maine voted to end a filibuster against a defense-spending bill that also included legalization of drilling in ANWR.

But when the filibuster held, Collins and others moved to get ANWR out of the defense bill. When Alaska senator Ted Stevens, a Republican who has championed drilling in the 19-million-acre preserve, agreed, Snowe and Collins both voted with the 93-0 majority to pass the defense bill, and returned to their long-held positions of opposing drilling in the refuge. Maine’s Democratic representatives were split on the matter, with Tom Allen voting for the conjoined defense-and-drilling bill December 19, and Mike Michaud opposing it.