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Updated: March 20, 2023 / 2023 Business Leaders of the Year

Business Leaders: Tom Watson is a developer that’s stuck with Portland through thick and thin

Photo / Tim Greenway Tom Watson, founder and chairman of Port Property, has committed to building another 800 housing units in Portland, even as other developers have shied away from the city and its increasingly stringent development regulations.
Tom Watson Industry Leader of the Year/Development The 2023 Business Leaders of the Year
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Developer Tom Watson, principal of Port Property, has a total of 2,000 housing units in greater Portland and Wilmington, N.C., and another 2,000 in the construction or planning stages. Maine is in a housing crunch and there’s a need for housing in both the affordable and market-rate categories.

Even as Portland adoption of the Green New Deal, rent control measures and exclusionary zoning have sent other developers running for less-regulated cities, Watson and his team have vowed to stick with Portland. In the past year, it continued to acquire buildings and a parking garage in Portland, and the company is winding up construction of the 171-unit Armature apartment building in the Bayside neighborhood — where Port Property has told the city it expects to build another 800 units in coming years.

Mainebiz: I believe you moved here from Massachusetts, first coming up in 1993. What attracted you to Portland at that time?

Tom Watson: I was an ultimate frisbee player and I came up to play in a game at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. The Portland team took me out for beers afterwards to Gritty’s. The beer, the frisbee, the people, the architecture, all stupendous. I knew I was home here in Portland.

MB: In 2017, the city started marketing the former maintenance garage properties. Was there a massive rush to those properties — or how would you describe the reaction from developers?

TW: Of the six properties for sale, we were most interested in two — the contiguous 82 Hanover and 52 Hanover, both of which were formerly working garages for Portland’s various fleets of vehicles. I think there were maybe 13 different developers vying for the sites. We were fortunate enough to be chosen by the City Council to develop 52 and 82. We promised the City we would move our property management company from Grant Street in Parkside to 82 Hanover and essentially be immersed in the neighborhood. We also promised to create 23 condos, eight of which would be affordable, at our Grant Street site, bringing much needed home ownership to that area. We delivered on all promises.

MB: What did you see as the potential for the Bayside neighborhood?

TW: During the 1980s, I was a painter and a sheetrocker in Boston and worked mostly in the South End which at the time was rough with a lot of warehouses and dilapidated brownstones. We made them beautiful homes, offices and storefronts. When we saw the garages in West Bayside we knew we could breathe new life into them as I had done in Boston’s South End and as we had been doing to many of the 1900-era downtown Portland apartment buildings over the last two decades.

MB: How many housing units do you have overall between Maine and North Carolina?

TW: Between Portland, Greater Portland and Wilmington, N.C., we own over 2,000 units.

MB: With all this housing and the influx of new residents we’ve seen in Maine, where are your tenants coming from?

TW: Historically, 75% of new residents came from Portland and other parts of Maine and 25% came from other states. That has flipped in the last few years. Today, 60% of residents are coming from away, and about 40% are coming from Maine, including Portland.

MB: Earlier this year, you submitted a master plan to the city Planning Board that calls for 800 units of housing. How do you envision rolling that out? What impact has the Green New Deal had on your plans?

TW: This project is being spearheaded by our CEO, John Laliberte. John is working closely with the city and the neighborhood to deliver 800 units in five phases over the span of 10 years. The first proposed phase consists of two buildings — a 201-unit affordable housing project and a 120-unit market rate housing project. All buildings in the Master Development Plan include a mixed-use retail element on the ground floor.

MB: Is Port Property focused on housing as a driving force?

TW: I’ve never seen housing as a driving force. I always say we’re the tail, not the dog. By that I mean we tend to respond to need as opposed to creating need. The smaller and bigger companies calling Portland their home — they are the driving force … and we want to make sure they have homes they’ll love.

MB: From a big picture economic development idea, What else does the Portland area need?

TW: I believe Portland is being discovered by the rest of the country as a great place to live and work. While Richard Florida’s book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ is nearly 10 years old, it speaks poignantly to what is going on in Portland today, that people are moving to what they consider to be cool and hip places and the jobs are following. Portland is that cool and hip place. And jobs are following.

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