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Updated: April 29, 2024 30th Anniversary

Real estate broker recalls Portland in throes of change over the past 30 years

Photo / Jim Neuger Greg Boulos, who has worked in commercial real estate for four decades, recalls the early days of Portland’s Old Port — and how it’s changed.

Greg Boulos joined the Boulos Co., a Portland-based commercial real estate firm that dates to 1975, several years after it was founded by his brother, Joe Boulos.

Now, as an owner and senior partner, Greg Boulos has consistent commercial sales and leasing transactions of over $75 million annually. He co-developed more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate. And he is host of “The Boulos Beat,” a podcast. The Babson College graduate worked in the Boston market for NET Properties Management Co. (now Heritage Properties) and Dickinson Development Corp.

Mainebiz: Did leaving Maine offer perspective when you returned?

Greg Boulos: When I left Portland, it was a place you left, not a place you went back to. When I was in high school, you’d never to go to the Old Port. It was dangerous. When I was home for a visit, I remember it was a hot August day. Walking down Exchange Street, there was a terrible smell because of the fish-processing plant across the Fore River in South Portland.

It was so bad your eyes would tear up. On other days, if the wind was blowing just right, the smell from the Westbrook paper mill was everywhere in downtown. The Fore River was dirty. A lot of buildings were dilapidated. That’s not compatible with having a modern, vibrant city.

But when I returned for good in 1983, I noticed Portland started to change. There was a developer, Howard Goldenfarb, who would buy buildings on Exchange Street, renovate them and lease them out — retail on the first floor, office space upstairs. [Goldenfarb, founder of the Ram Cos., renovated over 20 buildings in the area.]

MB: What was the tipping point for improvement?

GB: These things happen slowly. But one major event was when Tony DiMillo moved his restaurant, DiMillo’s, to the waterfront [in a renovated ferry as a “floating restaurant.”] It started to turn the waterfront around. Another major event that helped change that area was redoing Commercial Street.

When I was a kid, and even when I first moved back here in 1983, there was a railroad track down the middle of the road. If it was snowing or raining, you’d slip and slide along the track. You would literally be dodging trains. When they tore the tracks out and redid the street, suddenly it became the place you’d want to go for retail. The development of the Portland Fish Pier also had a major positive effect for the fishing industry and the city.

MB: How did Portland’s cachet continue to unfold?

GB: In the 1980s, tourists were going to Bar Harbor and Downeast and weren’t stopping in Portland. I remember when Geary opened [in 1983 as one of the nation’s first microbreweries]. Then Shipyard [Brewing Co.] opened. Suddenly craft beer mania took hold. To this day it’s a big deal and a major tourist draw.

On the heels of the new breweries, the restaurant industry took off. Chefs and restaurateurs started winning James Beard awards, which brought a lot of notoriety and publications like the New York Times writing about the food scene. Then there was a demand for nice hotels. One feeds the other. People started coming to Portland rather than bypassing it.

MB: What changes have you seen outside of Portland?

GB: One example is when Colby College and the Alfond Foundation invested a lot of money in downtown Waterville. It’s a much different city now. South of us, Biddeford and Saco have really taken off — new shops, new hotels, mills being converted to apartments. A lot of that is driven because Portland retail and apartments have become so expensive.

MB: What were Portland’s strengths 40 years ago versus today?

GB: Forty years ago, real estate was relatively inexpensive, and Portland was the financial and legal center for the state of Maine. It’s still the financial and legal center, but real estate isn’t cheap anymore. But now it’s relatively safe, there is a tourist scene, the medical community is a huge driver of the economy, and let’s not forget the expansion of the airport.

MB: Projections for the future?

GB: You can’t be in real estate without being an optimist. I’m always going to tell you Portland will be fine, and I believe it. But it doesn’t happen on its own. It takes people and money and, if it’s to continue, a city government that doesn’t get in the way.

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