Some Portland city councilors believe renovation and upgrade of Fitzpatrick Stadium, as suggested in this rendering, is the better plan for a professional soccer team that hopes to begin play in 2023.(Courtesy USL to Portland)
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There’s a giant lobster, once red but now green, named Crusher. There’s a giant aquatic dog named Slugger. Once upon a time, there was even a giant parrot named Crackers and his pirate friend Salty Pete.

So from the former Red Claws to the Maine Mariners and Portland Sea Dogs, from the dearly departed Portland Pirates and Maine Mammoths, one thing is clear: Portland’s incoming professional soccer team will have some big shoes to fill in the mascot department.

Construction of a soccer-specific stadium off Preble Street along Back Cove in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood is one of two proposals presented to the city. (Courtesy USL to Portland)

That soccer team, currently known as USL to Portland, last week presented its two finalist ideas for a stadium to the City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee: a new, approximately 5,000-seat stadium near Back Cove off Preble Street, or renovating the existing Fitzpatrick Stadium to seat about 7,000 people near Deering Oaks Park.

The stadium project is expected to cost the team and private investors between $8 million and $12 million. There would be no cost to city taxpayers.

While both locations present challenges, several councilors on the committee seemed to lean toward the Fitzpatrick proposal, because it would preserve more open space and present fewer logistical challenges. 

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, founder and president of the local ownership group behind the team, said USL to Portland needs a stadium with easy access by the largest number of fans. And in other cities with professional teams, he said, the most successful stadium locations are downtown, accessible via various forms of transit, which is how they landed on these two choices. 

The July 20 presentation to the Housing and Economic Committee was just an opportunity to reintroduce the proposal. No action was taken and the public was not allowed to comment. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who chairs the committee, stressed that no decision had been made on either proposal, and the committee would like to see additional information.

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson is the leader of USL to Portland, a development group hoping to bring a professional soccer team to the city.

But after the meeting, Thibodeau said it was clear there “are logistical hurdles” for the Preble Street proposal. “There is a path that is clearly the better path,” he said, “but we want to make sure we have all the information.”

Thibodeau said there is still committee work left to do, including hearing from the public. The panel’s meeting packet for this discussion included several pages of written public comment, with several people writing to oppose the stadium along Back Cove.

Thibodeau said he expects the proposals to return to the committee “sometime in the fall,” which gives staff time to provide analysis. He said there will be questions about how to progress beyond that, including whether the city should agree to a memorandum of understanding with USL to Portland.

For example, he said if Fitzpatrick Stadium ends up as the preferred location, who will pay to move and rebuild features like an outdoor track, and what will be the impact on school sports schedules.

“My guess is it will come in the fall with additional staff analysis,” he said. “One (proposal) will probably stand out. I think it seemed that the Preble Street location will be a tough go. But we’ll hear them out either way.”

Greg Mitchell, a consultant to the city and former economic development director, said the team’s ownership group did their homework in identifying the two sites. He said the peninsula is the preferred location, and land on the peninsula is already scarce. Criteria like available land, access to mass transit, and transportation connections drove the team’s decision.

The Preble Street field would require a low-cost land lease with the city, Hoffman-Johnson said, and construction of an entire professional stadium on the existing field. The current field is used locally through a fee system for games and events, which Hoffman-Johnson said would continue.

Challenges at Preble Street include an ongoing stormwater separation project and having to work with the Land Bank on a change of use for the privatization of public land. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the Preble Street field is also a Land and Water Conservation Fund property.

“So there are many approvals that would be necessary, including a super-majority of the (City) Council,” she said. 

Fitzpatrick Stadium, which is typically used by Portland High School teams and students from the adjacent King Middle School, as well as special events and games, would require a combination of renovation and new construction.

Hoffman-Johnson said the biggest challenge at Fitzpatrick would be having to remove and relocate the running track to comply with league requirements for the dimensions of the soccer pitch. He said they have identified two possible locations for the new track replacement: Payson Park and Dougherty Field.

Councilor Tae Chong said after the meeting he also favors the Fitzpatrick Stadium location since it would give the city a new track at either Payson or Dougherty, although his preference is Dougherty given its existing activities. He said he has also asked the team to consider creating a bicycle lane from Dougherty to Deering Oaks, which would help students and others safely bike along that route.

“I think if most of the kids who use that field are from King Middle School and Portland High School it makes sense for it to be there as opposed to Payson Park,” Chong said.

Chong said having another professional sports team in Portland would continue to cement the city as a tourist attraction beyond just its art scene and breweries. He noted the success of the Maine Celtics and Portland Sea Dogs as evidence that minor league teams attract visitors.

Chong said he opposes the Preble Street location because he doesn’t want to sacrifice open space and because the site presents parking challenges.

Councilor Pious Ali said he will keep an open mind on both locations, and wants the city to answer several questions before he makes a decision. He said he wants to know more about a possible deed restriction at the Preble Street field, and how the developers will engage with the community.

Ali noted they have engaged with local business owners and the schools, but the community voice – especially from the Parkside and Back Cove neighborhoods – is an important one.

“I will put all those in perspective once we get answers to the questions we asked,” Ali said. 

The stadium decision aside, Ali said he is excited about the prospect of professional soccer coming to Portland.

“It will do well to build bridges in the community and put Portland on the global soccer map,” he said.

Thibodeau said he has “general concerns” about the cost of the stadium, given other needs throughout the city, and would want a better understanding of that framework.

“I think this is obviously an exciting opportunity for the city to possibly have another professional sports team in town,” he said on July 20. “It does serve the community well for us to continue the conversation.”

Hoffman-Johnson is a former Falmouth High School standout and two-time state player of the year who later played professional soccer with St. Louis FC. USL to Portland also includes local real estate development firm Redfern Properties. They have been working with city officials on this plan since 2019, and believe professional soccer will have a positive impact on Portland.

Hoffman-Johnson said soccer is the fastest growing sport in America, the most popular sport worldwide, and has the ability to attract a younger and more diverse fan base than other sports. He also said the team will engage Portland’s immigrant community and help create a “sense of belonging” in the city.

“We see this team as a unifying force for Portland,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “We want the club to celebrate diversity.”

He said the team has already received expansion approval from the USL and hopes to be ready to play in the spring of 2023. It will be part of the lowest division of professional soccer, known as USL League One. The divisions are separated by market size and stadium capacity, and USL League One requires a stadium capacity of at least 3,500 and a market population of at least 150,000.