Looking back at 2022 can be disorienting. As it becomes clearer that the COVID-19 pandemic refuses to take the cue and leave our world, it can sometimes feel like we’re trapped in “the long 2020.” But in reality, there goes another year in the books.
For those who live in Portland, the dominant theme on the ground (and in our reporting) was everything to do with an historic election in November, including the Charter Commission’s lengthy process that resulted in eight charter amendments put before voters. But as we looked back at the year that was, we wanted to highlight some of the other things that happened — in other words, the stories that may have gotten buried beneath all the election coverage.
So as you head into a much-deserved holiday break, staff writers Colin Ellis and Evan Edmonds have compiled 17 Greater Portland stories that you might have missed this year.
The emergence of Westbrook
For many, Westbrook has long had a reputation as a fallback option: you move there because you’ve been priced out of owning or renting in Portland. But in the past decade, city leaders have made a concerted effort to turn that around, transforming an old mill town into one of Maine’s fastest-growing communities highlighted by the developing Rock Row plaza, the forthcoming vertical harvest farm, thousands of units of new housing in the pipeline and a transformed Main Street filled with bars, restaurants and local shops.
2. Portland’s leadership crisis
In 2022, Portland found itself without official leadership in City Hall and in several city departments. Both City Manager Jon Jennings and Police Chief Frank Clark abruptly resigned in late 2021. Over a year later, neither has been permanently replaced. But these two high-ranking positions are only the tip of the iceberg, as the city has been unable to fill more than 250 vacant positions throughout the year. As of last week, five department heads within City Hall are being filled by interim appointments. This is also compounded by the upcoming departures of Mayor Kate Snyder, who will not seek reelection, and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, who resigned on Dec. 16.
3. The cannabiz takeover
The adult-use retail marijuana market in Portland experienced its first true summertime season since the pandemic began, meaning more tourists and visitors than ever felt safer coming in the doors. In Portland, dozens of stores have been licensed to operate and sell marijuana and cannabis products to adults 21 years and older. According to state sales numbers, there were nearly $14 million in sales in November 2022 alone for 2022, while the year as a whole had nearly $143,620,000 in sales. That’s significantly larger than the 2021 year as a whole, which had just under $82 million in sales — though again, the past two years’ figures were each marked by pandemic restrictions.
4. Dive bars are back, baby
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Or have such good happy-hour prices on Miller Lite and mozzarella sticks? Neighborhood bars, known lovingly (or disparagingly) as dive bars, are just a drop in the bucket that is Portland’s nightlife scene. But these local watering holes – such as Howie’s Pub at the corner of Washington Avenue and Veranda Street, or Samuel’s on Forest Avenue – tend to have something in common: loyal fan bases that won’t abandon them and keep coming back. That was true again as they sought post-pandemic camaraderie in 2022, as the Phoenix reported in June. While these neighborhood bars might seem inaccessible for someone seeking a night in the Old Port, that’s the exact reason locals continue to seek out these pubs and their favorite barstools.
5. Big development — how Roux’d!
Plans for the Roux Institute may not be a story anybody missed exactly, and we’ve known about it since 2019, so it’s not exactly new. But it’s still a big deal, and it’s hard to miss where this graduate-level campus is going to be: the former B&M baked bean factory off the I-295 exit ramp. The historic factory was sold to a Falmouth-based development group, who plan to turn the parcel into a college run by Northeastern University, but with several other neighbor-angering developments, like campus housing and a hotel.
6. Are we returning to normal?
The world entered its third winter dealing with the Covid-19 virus as the calendar turned to 2022. But as the year inched toward spring, local bar owners and restaurateurs began to feel a sense of optimism that things would finally seem “normal” again as virus variants seemed to diminish. This general sense of normalcy followed two years of business owners having to be especially nimble, securing loans, observing pandemic precautions and switching to takeout models. But with cases continuing to drop, restrictions began to slip away, and early-to-mid 2022 had people like Dave Aceto, co-owner of Arcadia National Bar, feeling hopeful. “It’s much nicer to see some money coming in and not all the money going out,” he said in March. What happens this winter is anyone’s guess.
7. Wide open spaces
Public parks — and specifically who can use them — became a hot-button issue in Portland this year. The first came in the debate over food trucks on the Eastern Promenade, when a vocal group of neighbors complained about smell, noise and emissions. The city moved the trucks down to a lower parking lot, which truck owners and some customers balked at. Critics claimed the city was bending to the will of a few affluent homeowners, and not considering the public benefit and the nature of who can use a public park. In November, city staff said they would keep the Cutter Street location, but slash the number of trucks allowed there from 14 to seven, and would relocate seven spots to another adjacent lot. This fall, a second park issue involved the unexpected announcement that a Live Nation subsidiary was eyeing Portland for a massive two-day concert, which they estimated would attract 20,000 people per day. But concerns from neighbors pushed the proposal back at least a year, and the Council will discuss it again in the summer.
8. Buzzless beer
Portland has for the last decade or so been considered a premier beer destination, with names like Allagash and Bissell Brothers drawing beer fans from all over to visit. Now, there’s another reason: a recent, growing trend of brewers experimenting with non-alcoholic beer. In Portland alone, two non-alcoholic breweries, 1820 and Kit NA, cropped up this year and at the tail end of 2021, respectively, and have followed market trends of brewing choice pours such as IPAs and dark stouts. The challenge these breweries face is that NA beers have a much shorter shelf life than traditional beers with higher alcohol content, due to a shorter fermentation period. Beyond Portland, the rest of the state has also seen a growing non-alcoholic industry, with breweries like Woodland Farms in Kittery also joining the fray.
9. Don’t forget to laugh
Despite being a town known for its nightlife and cultural attractions, Portland has a troubled history with comedy clubs and opportunities for stand-up routines. Several have come and gone over the years in Portland, such as the Comedy Connection on Custom House Wharf which closed in 2012 and the Empire Comedy Club, a short-lived venture that opened in 2019 but closed during the pandemic. There are a handful of opportunities, however. Local comedian Marcus Cardona started the Maine House of Comedy in 2022, a partnership with the Free Street Restaurant & Cocktail Bar. There are also some occasional opportunities, such as the Portland Maine Comedy Festival, founded in 2015, and the outdoor show Cabin Fever Comedy Night at Thompson’s Point, which launched as a pandemic-response option in 2020.
10. The hazard pay/minimum wage/mask mandate
It’s almost hard to think back on the difference a year makes, but the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022 had much more uncertainty as the omicron variant of Covid-19 was still in swing. The city instituted a very short-lived mask mandate for the month of January, but a bigger issue had to do with hazard pay, a policy triggered by the corresponding state of emergency which raised the city’s minimum wage to $19.50 per hour. Voters approved a hazard pay provision in November 2020, which mandates a 50-percent raise in the minimum during official states of emergency. The City Council’s decision to end that state-of-emergency status sparked criticism from workers and some councilors, who saw the decision as an overly political move that was less concerned for public health than for business owners who didn’t want to pay their employees that much per hour.
While local media was flush with the battle between the lobster industry and environmental groups aiming to protect right whales, readers might’ve missed what else is going on with Portland’s fisheries. The groundfish industry has a lot of room for growth, for example, with the lobster industry facing limitations. Though this year, a key player in Portland’s waterfront, the Portland Fish Exchange, faced its own challenges to growth, sometimes overshadowing the industry’s potential. The Board of Directors is undergoing a search for external management — a first time for the publicly overseen organization — but one of the applicants, Vessel Services, ended up pulling out of the process in October, with its president, Alan Tracy, publicly losing confidence in the Board to figure out the problem.
12. Cruise ship conundrum
The question of how much cruise ships contribute to pollution resurfaced this year after the industry returned from its pandemic hiatus. The short answer: though it’s known that massive ocean liners are huge carbon emitters, there’s little data available to fully understand how they impact the air quality of ports they visit. If there’s anything to take out of the 2022 cruise ship saga, it’s that shore power could be a solution, and the city of Portland is ready to talk about it — particularly with its “Electrify Everything” goals in mind. It’s not yet clear how much time and money it would take to upgrade the city’s power grid to provide power at port, or where that money would come from. But, after the abandonment of referendum Question E, both sides of the argument — the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and the Longshoremen’s Association — came to a consensus that the city should continue looking into shore power in an effort to curb emissions. With all the interested parties, it’s safe to say these conversations will continue in 2023.
13. One school, two campuses
Back in January, Portland Public Schools took the first official step toward rethinking their high school model. The district sought a waiver to qualify for the “Integrated Consolidated” state funding project, looking to build a new facility that would house two of their three public high schools, Deering and Portland, along with their existing adult education and the technology-focused vocational school PATHS. The effort failed, but it became clear that a change would be necessary. School officials explained that the aging school buildings would require funds for upkeep that the district just doesn’t have. Superintendent Xavier Botana named the groundwork for the new high school model as a key priority before his imminent departure. Now the work is underway to align the high schools and make the transition easier, though a long list of obstacles stand in the way — including the traditions of the schools themselves.
14. Revisiting the “recipe for success”
Portland is known for its restaurants, so changes to the hospitality landscape, like rampant staffing concerns, reflected changes in culture. Some restaurants adapted, but many were lost. The Phoenix reported in April on the culinary program at Southern Maine Community College, which despite achieving its goals success has been unable to keep up with demand for chefs from local restaurants. The worker shortage has persisted, and staffing was a main concern for waterfront eateries like J’s Oyster and DiMillo’s ahead of the summer season. Meanwhile, inland restaurants like Dock Fore were ramping up for big business, only to find out that their seating capacity was to be cut back due to outdoor dining reset to pre-pandemic limits.
15. A blow against hate
LGBTQ Pride month came in June with many reasons to celebrate. The march resurfaced in Portland after it was stifled by the pandemic, and the new Equality Community Center (ECC) on Casco Street was there to witness it. There was a resoluteness to the celebrations of the LGBTQ+ community here in Maine. The ECC’s manager, Chris O’Connor, said at the time that the movement’s whole existence has been “making progress…and someone trying to take it away.” In 2022, the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has been seen as a potential warning sign to the LGBTQ+ community that Obergefell vs. Hodges, the landmark same-sex marriage decision, could also be in jeopardy. On Dec. 13 though, the movement’s progress was bolstered, capping the year off on a high note. President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, providing additional protections to gay marriage should Obergefell vs. Hodges ever be reversed by the Supreme Court.
16. Neighborhood climate impacts
The Phoenix reported this year that Maine could be uniquely positioned to influence national climate change efforts. As the only state with both of its senators represented in the legislature’s climate solutions caucus, the actions Maine takes can have direct influence on climate change efforts. Last week, the New York Times published a mapped analysis of the emissions footprints from American cities, on which Portland shows emissions per household lower than the national average. Other Maine municipalities do show room for improvement, but similar to national trends, households in suburban areas show higher emissions. There’s much to be done to meet statewide emission reduction goals in the long-term, but Portland’s neighborhoods appear to be doing their part.
17. Portland, a soccer city in the making… or is it already?
Soccer is the “universal language,” as Phoenix columnist Greg Levinsky puts it in his Oct. 12 column. And just like in the South Portland boys’ soccer program, the language has been spoken aplenty in Portland in the latter part of 2022. The group behind the “USL to Portland” movement (referring to the United Soccer League) have made sure of that, building a following and trying to settle on a venue for a semi-pro soccer franchise over the last few years. The World Cup played its part too: it filled local bars and inspired a massive gathering at Monument Square to support the United States Mens’ National Team. Portland residents have come out in droves to speak the language and watch this beautiful game. Just imagine if this community was coming out to support its very own team.