Principal Forefront Partners, Portland
Principal: Chris Thompson
Business: Real estate development, including the planned Thompson's Point, a $105 million mixed-use waterfront project
Walking around Thompson's Point in Portland on a fall afternoon, it becomes clear that progress is moving forward for the $105 million mixed-use development that aims to transform the 30-acre industrial site into an arts-and-entertainment hub, or, if you ask developer Chris Thompson, a new neighborhood that will feel like it's always been there.
Construction crews work on widening the rail crossing that will connect the former rail yard to the rest of the city, along with other infrastructure improvements supported by funds from local, state and federal agencies. And the success of what was Maine's largest beer festival held in August previews what's to come at the property's 5,000-person capacity outdoor concert venue, which will begin scheduling regular events next summer. Much of this was set into motion when the Thompson's Point master plan was approved by the Portland Planning Board earlier this year.
There are still many lots to be filled with buildings and other developments of many shapes and sizes — some of which remain years away — but Thompson, one of the site's leading developers and a principal at Forefront Partners, looking from the ground up, can already visualize what the future will bring.
"You don't get many chances to put something unique together," Thompson says, standing in the 35,000-square-foot former train shed that will include a food market and retail stores. "But to have a whole place, to get the opportunity to create a place in Portland, a 30-acre place in a city this amazing ... is a real gift."
The plan has changed since last year due to many factors, including the loss of a major potential office tenant, but Thompson, a principal at Forefront Partners, said the development's new master plan provides a better vision of what Thompson's Point can be. Ar the same time, it still includes many of the features that were originally planned, including a 125-room hotel and a 2,500-person event center that will become the home of Portland's NBA Development League team, the Maine Red Claws.
For Thompson, who has no relation to the site's name, making sure Thompson's Point feels like Portland instead of a development that happens to be in Portland is one of his development team's top priorities and challenges.
"This is building a neighborhood and if you don't get the DNA of it right from the start, it never feels like a neighborhood," Thompson says. "And all the [people] you want to attract to your neighborhood like the idea of what you're saying, but it doesn't feel like that. There's no fooling people. Either it feels like a real place or it doesn't."
With the Circus Conservatory of America, the nation's first accredited circus school, planned for Thompson's Point and other arts and entertainment-related plans in various stages of development, it may come as no surprise that Thompson became an artist first and a developer second.
Growing up in the Lewiston-Auburn and Freeport areas, Thompson eventually went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in a special interdisciplinary program at New York University that allowed him to mix painting, history and philosophy. He earned a PhD in cultural history at the University of London. After he and his wife moved back to Portland in the early 2000s for what was supposed to be a brief stay, his wife, a dancer, found a job with a contemporary dance company that anchored the couple's position there. Around the same time, Thompson became an associate professor of art history at the Maine College of Art.
It was around 2003 that his stepfather, the late Steve Griswold, a real estate developer and minority Maine Red Claws owner who passed away in April 2013, recruited Thompson to work with his firm on various projects, Thompson says. It was from Griswold and his partners, he says, that he learned that real estate developments don't have to be just about making money, but also helping foster communities — a lesson that has inspired his sense of mission in turning Thompson's Point not just into a new development, but a neighborhood.
"Our approach has been to ask, 'What does this community need, what does it want, what can it support, and how do we make something great out of that fabric?'" says Thompson, who also recently opened the Hampton Inn in Lewiston.
An economic impact analysis by Charles Lawton of Portland-based Planning Decisions from April 2011 found that Thompson's Point is expected to create 455 jobs and generate $31.3 million in new sales for Maine businesses once everything is operating — figures that have likely since changed because of major revisions to the development plan.
But for Thompson, that's not the only important thing.
"It's about contributing to culture," he says. "It's about creating those spaces we've all experienced where you imagine chapters in your life beginning and ending and opening into new ones."