Bored on the Fourth of July

Cash-strapped Portland privatizes its patriotic celebration

image/courtesy Shamrock Sports and Entertainment

If you give it some thought, Portland’s Fourth of July event on the Eastern Promenade this year will be a true reflection of the United States of America in 2019. The richest 1 percent will get pampered with perks denied to everyone else, the upper-middle-class gets to feel special just for being near those aristocrats and inside their own gated area, and the rest of us schlubs are told we should be grateful to have a party at all.

The government of Maine’s largest and wealthiest city is piss broke, certainly too broke to afford luxuries like fireworks when it can’t even pay to maintain our public buildings and parks. So just as governments must borrow money from the wealthy in the form of bonds to pay for basic infrastructure, so the City of Portland has, since 2010, turned to the rich to pay to celebrate our wonderful democracy.

Here’s how it (supposedly) worked. In exchange for the opportunity to get their logos in front of the throngs who flock to Munjoy Hill every year to watch the fireworks, companies like Quirk Chevrolet, Wex (formerly Wright Express), the Maine Red Claws and the Portland Press Herald promised to pay for the event, including reimbursing the city for the cost of expenses like police and trash collection. The for-profit businesses formed a nonprofit, called July 4th Portland, to accomplish this, and renamed the public event the “Stars and Stripes Spectacular.” The group was led by Jon Jennings, of the Red Claws, before he was hired in 2015 to lead Portland as its city manager.

Last year, the Press Herald — which, as a co-founder of July 4th Portland, must’ve known something was screwy — requested the city’s financial records for the event. It turns out the city had spent over $100,000 of public money since 2015 to support the Stars and Stripes Spectacular, even as the event “has continually been promoted as ‘entirely privately funded,’” Herald reporter Randy Billings wrote last spring.

In other words, Jennings has been covering up this big public subsidy for his rich pals, apparently to spare them the embarrassment of admitting they haven’t been able to drum up the corporate sponsorship cash needed to cover their expenses. Jennings “said the city always has had the intention of recouping those losses from July 4th Portland … which is why the event has been promoted as privately funded,” Billings wrote.

I sent questions to the city manager’s office last month to get an update. Does July 4th Portland still owe the city money? What, if anything, has the city done over the past four years to collect the money it’s owed? And who, specifically, is still responsible for July 4th Portland’s debt? Jennings surely knows who they are.

“[L]et me see what I can do,” city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin wrote back. Apparently the answer is nothing; I received no response.

For this year’s July 4th celebration the city is skipping the “nonprofit run by for-profits” scheme and just handing the event over to a privately owned company called Shamrock Sports & Entertainment. Shamrock has previously partnered with major corporations to put on air shows and powerboat races you’ve never heard of, but the Portland-based marketing firm also helped bring the Professional Bowlers Association to Bayside Bowl by securing “a seven-figure agreement” with Geico, according to its website.

Shamrock has renamed the event again — now it’s “SummerFest ME.” SummerFest is two events: the Pops with Purpose Gala at the city’s Ocean Gateway terminal on June 28, and Portland Pops, a performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra on the Eastern Prom before and during the July 4thfireworks display. The city is footing the bill for the pyrotechnics, but Shamrock is responsible for everything else, said Brian Corcoran, founder and “chief engagement officer” of Shamrock.

The public is welcome to attend the Pops with Purpose Gala, but it’ll cost you $100 to get in the door. And on July 4th, if you want to sit anywhere near the symphony, that’ll also require a ticket. Shamrock is reserving space on the grass of the public promenade for 500 “VIP’s,” who, for $50, get a chair to sit in, “catered cuisine” and a “beverage voucher.” Perhaps the most valuable perk: reserved parking by the Maine State Pier, on Commercial Street, a short walk or shuttle ride to the action. About a quarter of those Very Important Person tickets will be given to the event’s corporate sponsors.

The deadbeats behind July 4thPortland offered a similar enticement to patriotic people of means: $100 for a seat near the orchestra’s stage, and $1,000 for a table. But Shamrock is going way beyond that. Room for an additional 2,000 paying guests will be fenced or roped off behind the section for the 500 VIPs. These “reserved” tickets, which cost $25, don’t include an actual seat (apparently you just get the right to occupy a patch of grass), and parking and cuisine aren’t part of the package, but it does include a “beverage voucher.”

So, in total, that’s space for 2,500 paying customers (plug legroom), in the best section of the public park to hear the music and watch the fireworks, and anyone who doesn’t shell out for a ticket cannot enter. At a press conference last month to announce SummerFest ME, Shamrock provided a map showing the location and relative size of each area. Curiously, the space for the 500 VIPs is exactly the same size as the space for 2,000 reserved ticketholders (the sole difference being the small area within the VIP section for the PSO stage). A third area, labeled “free viewing,” located behind the reserved section, is only about twice as large as the VIP and reserved areas, but that’s also absurdly misleading. As in years past, people will be allowed to sit all along the promenade, not just in a rectangular area in the middle.

Or so we’ve been told. We’ve certainly been burned before.