PORTLAND, Maine — November 15, 2021 — On Monday, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and the Proprietors of Union Wharf jointly announced they have signed a purchase and sale agreement to transfer ownership of Union Wharf to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to protect and preserve working waterfront access in Portland Harbor.
In March, The Proprietors of Union Wharf, led by fifth-generation owners and managers Charlie and Malcolm Poole, began working with The Dunham Group to find a new owner for the wharf. After 160 years of ownership, the Poole family sought “a like-minded entity to carry on the tradition of maintaining a working pier and a working waterfront."
After extensive discussions with fishing community leaders, city leaders, the Department of Marine Resources, community organizations, and other interested parties, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute submitted a proposal to purchase Union Wharf. The Poole family selected the GMRI bid because of their commitment to steward the wharf as the centerpiece of the city’s working waterfront and because they offered a fair price.
“For generations, the Poole family has felt very strongly about stewardship to Union Wharf and more broadly, to the working waterfront in the Port of Portland,” Charlie Poole said. “The Gulf of Maine Research Institute brings a very similar view of the working waterfront and the necessary commitment to maintaining the infrastructure to a very high standard. We felt they would be the best fit to take over the ownership and management of Union Wharf going forward.”
A Long History
One of Portland’s key waterfront landmarks, Union Wharf is the firewall between the tourism-focused eastern waterfront and the working waterfront that starts at Widgery Wharf and extends west to the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.
Union Wharf is Portland’s oldest commercial wharf, built in 1793 at a time when horse-drawn carts carried goods between buildings, tall clipper ships visited the docks, and sailors, stevedores, and fishermen passed each other in the street. Family predecessors to the Pooles were involved as early proprietors and owners as early as the mid-1800s. In the years since, Union Wharf has seen Portland through the Great Fire of 1866, industrialization, and the threat of climate change.
Looking at the throngs of tourists posing for photos along the waterfront today, it can be difficult to imagine that Portland’s waterfront was once considered an eyesore. A 1978 study funded by the National Science Foundation described it as “one of the most decrepit on the East Coast.” This sparked a massive redevelopment effort in the 1970s and 1980s, including new investments and infrastructure in the Old Port area. This also coincided with the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976, which aimed to protect domestic fishermen from foreign competition.
As Portland evolved into a thriving mixed-use waterfront over the last 50 years, fishermen requiring access to the water and developers hoping to convert piers into retail spaces, hotels, and condominiums began to compete for real estate – introducing the challenge that exists today.
Despite its status as one of the premiere fishing-focused wharves in the state, Union Wharf and others like it are increasingly under threat. Condo, hotel, and office development projects, legal challenges to zoning rules, maintenance costs, climate change, and a variety of other factors make these real estate assets more difficult to preserve as working waterfronts.
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s mission is to pioneer collaborative solutions to global ocean challenges. Increasingly, a lack of waterfront access for marine businesses is one of the major challenges facing working waterfronts in Maine, throughout New England, and around the world. As new owners, GMRI believes Union Wharf can serve as a model for how other coastal communities can navigate this challenge.
“Union Wharf epitomizes high-quality working waterfront in Portland Harbor,” said Don Perkins, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s President/CEO. “Our vision is for Union Wharf to serve as a model for how coastal communities can continue to invest in and protect waterfront access. We will steward and manage Union Wharf over the long-term with the guidance of industry advisors."
One such industry voice is Willis Spear, a longtime leader in the Portland fishing community. Spear describes the threat of development as one that affects generations to come as much as today’s fishermen.
“All the wharves in the harbor impact each other. By buying and protecting Union Wharf, GMRI will buffer the rest of our working wharves and protect them from speculation. They will help ensure a future for our next generation of fishermen.”
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is uniquely prepared for the challenge of managing Union Wharf, which will be incorporated separately from the non-profit entity as a tax-paying limited liability corporation (LLC). GMRI has a proven track record of successfully acquiring, improving, and maintaining Wright’s Wharf — where GMRI works to understand our changing marine ecosystem, increase production of responsibly harvested and farmed seafood, support coastal communities to adapt to climate change, and increase jobs in our marine economy.
In the future, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute plans to expand Union Wharf’s capacity to support innovative fishermen and fish processors, our growing aquaculture industry, and other innovators in our marine economy.
“Union Wharf is blessed with a hardworking, innovative, and diverse mix of marine tenants,” Perkins said. “We look forward to supporting them in the same spirit that the Poole Family has done for 160 years.”
Photo Assets are available via this link or by reaching out to Elijah Miller at [email protected]. These photos are available for one-time use with this story and can be credited to “Gulf of Maine Research Institute.”
Additional Leadership Commentary:
“For hundreds of years, Portland’s working waterfront has been at the heart of the city’s economy and character. Union Wharf has provided a home to generations of fishermen and marine businesses, and helped distribute the products of Maine’s iconic fishing industry around the globe. An asset this valuable needs the right stewards, and I think the Poole family has made a fine choice in selecting the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) to take on ownership of the property. I know that GMRI is deeply committed to preserving the long tradition of the working pier, and I am eager to see how GMRI and the Union Wharf community rise to the challenges of an evolving waterfront and changing climate to protect one of the oldest structures in the city.” — Senator Angus King
“I am excited about the future with this agreement because Union Wharf is a cornerstone of Portland’s working waterfront, powering our economy and supporting marine businesses and the livelihoods of our fishermen, processors, dealers, and others. The purchase of the wharf by GMRI guarantees that it will remain working waterfront for future generations, protecting this iconic landmark and preserving its role in our crucial seafood industry. I am proud to support this endeavor and thank GMRI and the Poole family for their responsible stewardship.” — Governor Janet Mills
“This is great news for Maine’s fishing and aquaculture industries. Maine’s waterfront is under growing development pressure that threatens important access for these vital sectors of Maine’s blue economy. Access through the preservation of Maine’s working waterfront is vital to protecting jobs, and supplying healthy, locally sourced Maine Seafood. I applaud GMRI for its commitment to protecting Portland’s working waterfront and sustaining Maine’s maritime heritage.” — Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher
About the Gulf of Maine Research Institute:
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute pioneers collaborative solutions to global ocean challenges. Located in Portland, ME, the institute is dedicated to the resilience of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. For more information, visit www.gmri.org.