When Chris Thompson, the public face of Harborcorp, the huge conference center/hotel/ condominium/Whole Foods Market development proposed for the Sheraton parking lot, presents his plans before City Hall, he brings with him a team of highly paid lawyers, architects and consultants.
By contrast, the folks serving on the City Council and land use boards are volunteers, giving their time and energy to the City for free. Similarly, the residents who come to advocate for what’s best for them and the City, are also on their own time, unpaid. Both the city boards and the residents face Harborcorp’s professionals, paid by the hour at meetings that can go from 6.30 PM to past midnight.
The Harborcorp complex, probably costing a hundred million dollars or more, is the largest project ever proposed for the City of Portsmouth. The ultimate power to green light such a development has been given over to the Historic District Commission, an unpaid group consisting predominantly of architects and builders used to debating the merits of doorways, cupolas, window frames, etc on historic buildings. This is a big stretch for them, and they are way out of their depth.
One of the members of HarborCorp’s team is Paul Young, resident of Exeter, and President of Novus Public Affairs, a PR and lobbying company. Paul Young proudly states on his website, his go-to TV news source is Fox News. Novus has been hired by Chris Thompson because of their track record. Novus’ website brags about the tactics used to help another large developer push through the Lowe’s/Target shopping center in Greenland in 2007. Here are direct quotes from their website:
“Massachusetts-based Packard Development was facing local opposition to their proposed development of a shopping center in Greenland, New Hampshire.... Novus professionals were tasked with turning the tide of publicity surrounding the project to ensure that development was able to proceed smoothly.... Novus experts developed a strategic plan to isolate the opposition as an unreasonable minority... With the help of key advocates on the Greenland Planning Board and in the NH State Legislature recruited by Novus, the Rockingham County Superior Court ruled in favor of Packard in 2007.” So Greenland got its strip mall whether it wanted it or not.
Novus’ services also include “crafting grassroots programs” for their clients. Wikipedia calls this practice ‘Astroturfing‘ after the plastic grass used on sports fields. I sincerely hope our City leaders and others will see through any attempts to marginalize residents like me by saying we’re against all development, which is not true. We want to see appropriate thoughtful development. The HarborCorp plan is too big. It should be broken up into two or three separate buildings with pedestrian access through them, the roof height should be varied and the parking and traffic problems revisited.
This is the substance of the appeal by almost 160 residents. We want to revisit HarborCorp’s application. Not to stop it, but to moderate it. Jerry Zelin and Duncan MacCallum are heading this motion not for fat fees they won’t earn - they are doing it for free - because, like me, they are residents who care deeply about the long-term vision for this City and are prepared to make their voices heard as part of a real grassroots community movement. Our City’s boards should listen to what we the taxpayers are saying not join the Paul Young song sheet and try to dismiss us as nay sayers.
Sincerely Jonathan Guilbert