2016-09-16 / Front Page

In South Portland, World War II finally ends

Greater Portland Public Development Commission, created to manage liberty ship properties, set to disband
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan, chairman of the Greater Portland Public Development Commission, beside the liberty ship memorial at Bug Light Park. Dedicated in 2001, the structure marks the site as the location of shipyards that, during World War II, cranked out 266 cargo vessels, with thousands of workers building 13 at a time on the 140-acre complex. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan, chairman of the Greater Portland Public Development Commission, beside the liberty ship memorial at Bug Light Park. Dedicated in 2001, the structure marks the site as the location of shipyards that, during World War II, cranked out 266 cargo vessels, with thousands of workers building 13 at a time on the 140-acre complex. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The $25,000 donation accepted by the South Portland City Council at its Sept. 7 meeting was notable in its size, but otherwise went largely unheralded, at least in relation to the impact the granting authority has had on the city over the past seven decades, and the milestone marked by the Greater Portland Public Development Commission gift.

The commission was chartered by the Legislature in 1946 to manage the U.S. Naval shipyards that, during World War II, employed nearly 30,000 people (including more than 3,700 women), who worked day and night to crank out 266 cargo vessels and ships that contributed immeasurably to the Allied victory.


South Portland shipyards are seen in this 1941 aerial photo taken prior to America’s entry into World War II. In the center of the photo, Cushing Point, now buried beneath Bug Light Park, can be seen, along the Fore River, in line with the Bug Light causeway, are the original seven basins of the Todd-Bath Shipbuilding Corp., which at the time was making cargo class vessels for Great Britan. Below Cushing Point and the pier that now belongs to Portland Pipe Line Corp. the East Yard basins can be seen under construction, while many of the Cushing Point homes demolished to make way for the shipyards can still be see to the left of the image. (Photo courtesy South Portland Historical Society) South Portland shipyards are seen in this 1941 aerial photo taken prior to America’s entry into World War II. In the center of the photo, Cushing Point, now buried beneath Bug Light Park, can be seen, along the Fore River, in line with the Bug Light causeway, are the original seven basins of the Todd-Bath Shipbuilding Corp., which at the time was making cargo class vessels for Great Britan. Below Cushing Point and the pier that now belongs to Portland Pipe Line Corp. the East Yard basins can be seen under construction, while many of the Cushing Point homes demolished to make way for the shipyards can still be see to the left of the image. (Photo courtesy South Portland Historical Society) The Greater Portland Public Development Commission managed the 140-acre shipyard sites, leasing out its many buildings – including 14 major plants with nine overhead cranes, three power plants, 8 miles of railroad siding, and a host of smaller machine shops – in an effort to maintain the economic vitality sparked by the war effort. In the first two decades after the war, the commission employed dozens of its own workers to maintain the property as it leased out portions of it to a variety of industrial companies that kept thousands of people on the job, which ranged from building bombs to making clothespins, and from processing sea moss to canning meat sauce, along with all manner of metal fabrication and warehousing.

However, the ultimate goal of the commission was to return the federalized property to private hands, and city tax rolls, which it began to do in 1950 when it sold off 21 acres of the West Yard to Pocahontas Terminal Corp. for oil storage tanks. That and selling the old fitting pier of the East Yard to Portland Pipe Line Corp. may be the commission’s most recognizable efforts, but its successes were many and subtle. According to a history of the commission written in 1983, it was the only one of 14 shipyards sold off after World War II to repay its mortgage to the U.S. government in full.

Times changed, however, and by the early 1980s, when General Electric announced it was leaving the site due to reduced demand for the nuclear power plant components made there, the mission of Greater Portland Public Development Commission was also in flux. According to the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, it sold off the last of its land by 1994, discharging the last lien held on properties it had sold off a decade later.

In recent years, the commission has focused on small loans and grants from its dwindling coffers, including an attempt to launch the multi-municipal Greater Portland Economic Development Corp. as a way to continue its work. It also began to give more to arts and cultural organizations, a contrast from the days when it refused to lease any of its buildings for use as restaurants or entertainment sites (once even refusing a proposed roller rink), preferring to focus on industrial uses from its properties and the perceived best way to spur job growth.

According to City Councilor Claude Morgan, who is also chairman of the five-member Greater Portland Public Development Commission Board of Directors, the commission gave a similar $25,000 donation to Portland that drains its coffers of all but “about $4,000,” which he said will be used to pay off legal bills incurred during its eventual dissolution process.

According to Michael Quinlan, an attorney with the Portland firm Jensen Baird Gardner Henry, Greater Portland Public Development Commission counsel and secretary for the past 20 years, a final vote has not been taken by Morgan and his fellow board members to officially disband. However, Morgan said that vote is imminent, and could come as soon as the board’s next meeting.

“I think, clearly, the writing is on the wall with respect to that,” Quinlan agreed. “There really isn’t going to be a lot of sense in continuing on.”

According to Morgan, the $25,000 gifts to Portland and South Portland are an attempt to liquidate the final Greater Portland Public Development Commission assets. According to an Aug. 10 memo sent along with those checks, the money can be used “in the discretion of the city manager and economic development director in support of regional economic development efforts.”

It was decided that what remained in commission coffers – now greatly depleted from the multi-million-dollar kitty it managed in the 1950s and 1960s – could be put to better use by the cities themselves, given that the commission had gotten to a state where what cash it had on hand was largely going toward annual legal fees and financial reporting to the state.

“It’s got to the point where the amount of effort needed to keep the engine running was taking more fuel than we are actually moving forward with,” Morgan said. “In one respect, it’s nice to wrap things up, to close a chapter properly and let history move on and new eras roll into place.

“It’s good now to repay the cities for their initial investment, to give that money back from whence it came,” he added.

According to the 1983 Greater Portland Public Development Commission history authored by Martha Henry, the commission was the brainchild of Harris Plaisted, who worked at the shipyards and noted work slowing as early as February 1945, prompting rumors the West Yard, at least, might soon cease operations. He took his idea for keeping the work whistles blowing by soliciting other industries into the yards to Cumberland County Commissioners, who, Henry writes, “were not enthusiastic about taking on such a large responsibility.” Instead, it fell to State Sen. Ralph Leavitt, a Portland Republican, to introduce a bill chartering the commission, in hopes of attracting industry to the site and to “prevent liquidation of the yards by speculators as was happening in other areas of the country.”

The commission, Henry wrote, “was the first major effort in economic development in the greater Portland area,” as, before the war, area businesses had grown organically, without organized effort to lure in large concerns, or grease the skids for relocation.

Greater Portland Public Development Commission consists of five members – two from Portland and two from South Portland, with the fifth jumping back and forth across the river – appointed to five-year terms by the governor. The first five were appointed on July 27, 1945, three months after victory in Europe. Commissioners met for the first time on Aug. 6, 1945, at South Portland City Hall, and, the next day, city councils from both Portland and South Portland voted to give the commission $1,000, each, in seed money.

According to an online inflation calculator maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that investment equates to $13,369 in 2016 dollars.

That was the only money the commission ever took from the cities, as it met all operating expenses by leasing buildings and selling lots over intervening decades. Greater Portland Public Development Commission got the 30-acre West Yard property from the War Assets Commission for $224,976 (a little more than $3 million today), along with a promise to forward to the U.S. Maritime Commission 10 percent of its profits, up to a ceiling of $176,000, after its 10th year of operation. The commission financed the down payment by contracting to immediately sell off the Broadway Plate Yard to lumberman Chester Abbott for $25,000 ($334,231 today). Abbot had that site up and running as a lumber-dressing mill by 1947, just in time to process a good chuck of trees felled in the forest fires that raged across Maine that year.

There was a minor hiccup in the purchase, however, as some critics noted the Maritime Commission’s cost to built the yard was more than $6 million (or, $88.6 million today), not counting the cost of acquiring lands by eminent domain, making the commission deal a fire sale kind of bargain. At one point, government officials were on the verge of selling the yard to a Philadelphia junking firm, which had outbid the Greater Portland Public Development Commission offer. But lobbying by Maine’s congressional delegation carried the day, although that, too, nearly came to naught.

According to Henry, the entire enterprise was nearly scuttled when a government representative showed up at the Greater Portland Public Development Commission offices. The unnamed bureaucrats aid he had a 5p.m. plane to catch back to Washington, and if commissioners did not cough up the $10,000 first payment on the loan, they’d lose the title to the land. But there was no money to be had. The initial $2,000 given by the cities had been spent on negotiating and surveying expenses, and the commission had no credit as of yet with any local banks.

To the rescue came Greater Portland Public Development Commission Vice Chairman Edward Boulos Sr., a Portland electrical contractor named to the commission by Gov. Horace Hildreth. Boulos called his bookkeeper and had a certified check made out from his business account, delivered just under deadline.

“Boulos had no guarantee the commission would stay afloat long enough to repay his loan, but his personal faith and ability to cut through bureaucracy put the commission on its feet and started it running,” Henry wrote.

The first payment made, the commission quickly sold off the power station to Central Maine Power, then started leasing out buildings. By the end of 1947, the site was leased nearly to capacity, with more than 1,200 workers streaming in and out daily. Apart from industrial activity, agriculture also was encouraged, with a number of seafood processing plants, while nearly 100 found jobs handling more than 800 rail cars full of government surplus potatoes brought in for storage that winter.

The War Assets Commission at first leased the East Yard to a New York firm that repaired and salvaged ships, but that contract only lasted until 1949. In 1950 Greater Portland Public Development Commission bought the remaining shipyard sites, covering nearly 44 acres, for $600,000. Buildings in the East Yard were almost completely leased out by the end of 1951 although only 565 jobs were created that year, given that much of the space went to warehousing.

Meanwhile, leasing out the East Yard came with some complications. The U.S. government, not completely convinced it would have no further use for the shipyard, included a clause in the sale that required the commission to return the property “to the condition at the time if its sale” within 120 says of notice.

That prevented the sale of some land and most of the surplus equipment. Still, Greater Portland Public Development Commission began unloading some property, including 21 acres to the Pocahontas Terminal Corp. in April 1950 for oil tanks, and the former fitting-out pier (which still stands today, although it’s since been elongated) to Portland Pipe Line Corp. in 1955.

During the 1960s and 1970s there were at least four separate to-dos with the South Portland City Council over the tax exempt status of the commission. But the commission always maintained it needed that freedom from property taxes to reduce rents enough to lure in businesses, while it always made a point that every sale returned a block of property back to the tax rolls.

By 1983, when General Electric pulled out, it owned options on about 80 percent of the remaining commission. The loss of GE, Mayor Tom Blake said, led to “a dark period,” but the result ended up being the creation of Port Harbor Marina and the Breakwater at Spring Point condominiums, as the area began its transition out of heavy industry as its primary use.

According to Quinlan, the last big investment of Greater Portland Public Development Commission may have been in 1996, when it gave more than $500,000 to help create Bug Light Park and the Liberty Ship Memorial.

Since then, it has used its remaining dollars largely to fund business incubators and small start-up operations, sometimes with hit-and-miss results.

“Arguably, while with a commission like this you want to be fiscally responsible, we were an alternative source of funding for those folks whose ideas might have been too edgy or a traditional loan,” Morgan said. “So, we were in the let’ssee where-we can-go business, not the let’s-seize-your-collateral-mortgage-you-out business. We were into exploring and stretching this economy.”

“I think the various commissions over the years tried their best to do what they could with what they had,” Quinlan added, “but certainly their management and the transformation of the former shipyard properties into what they are today is a great testament to their successes.”

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