Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The secret formula

The Bollard reports today on the proposed "formula business" limits proposed for downtown Portland.

This idea, a reaction to a recent proposal to install a Hooters joint on Congress Street, rides the wave of "Keep Portland Independent" sentiment, which finds its expression in bumper stickers and tee shirts in nearly every Old Port storefront. And, on some level, it's a nice idea: support local businesses by keeping big franchises out.

Too bad this proposed legislation is such a mess.

The ordinance, championed by Karen Geraghty, is full of tortured legal language that tries to define what a "formula" business really is. It's difficult, because many of Portland's businesses, which no one wants to expel from the city, already follow some sort of "formula." As a result, the ordinance is long, confusing, and full of loopholes.

Which shouldn't be surprising, given the fact that this is all a knee-jerk reaction to the idea (horrifying to Portland's well-heeled bobos) that a roughneck joint like Hooters might end up on Congress Street. Where was Geraghty when other chains like Starbucks or Cold Stone Creamery moved in?

Downtown Portland has a bigger problem than the prospect of Hooters. This city's retail trade is thriving, but there's very little diversity among its businesses. You can "Keep Portland Independent" if you need to buy a tee shirt or precious bits of pottery, but good luck finding independent retailers of sensible things like nails, wastebaskets, or reasonably priced groceries. Ultimately, keeping chain businesses out of downtown will keep on driving (literally) the middle class out of the city to buy the things they really need at the mall.

Maddeningly, this might be exactly what certain members of the Council are after. Gereaghty's "Keep Portland Real" coalition, formed to support her legislation, consists of such tony retailers as Standard Baking and Aurora Provisions. Certainly a place like Hooters is anethma to the upscale shopping mall that they want Portland to be. But a functional city that serves its residents shouldn't be.

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