Portland considers vote on concert promoter

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The Portland City Council could vote Wednesday against contracting directly with a local concert promoter who pleaded guilty to domestic assault, and instead sign the deal with the promoter’s national partner.

The proposed action would affect concerts this summer on the city-owned Maine State Pier and is in response to pressure from community members to sever ties with Waterfront Concerts, a local promotion company whose owner, Alex Gray, pleaded guilty last fall to domestic violence assault. Councilors are slated to vote Wednesday in favor of giving the contract instead to national promoter Live Nation.

But it may have more symbolic effect than practical, allowing the city to avoid a direct contract with Gray even though his company is still expected to promote shows at the city-owned pier.

Waterfront Concerts already partners with Live Nation to book national touring acts in Portland, Bangor and Rhode Island. And Mayor Ethan Strimling and several councilors acknowledged that Live Nation may simply subcontract the Portland shows to Waterfront Concerts.

“If Live Nation continues to work with him, it’s going to be a public relations problem for them,” Strimling said.

Neither representatives from Live Nation nor Alex Gray responded to requests for comment.

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The woman who was assaulted by Gray and publicly called on the city to sever ties with his company said Tuesday that little would change based on the city’s plan. The Maine State Pier, as well as Darlings Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor and other venues that host shows promoted by Waterfront Concerts, are already considered Live Nation venues, and the two companies work together.

“Live Nation is partnered with Waterfront Concerts so they would subcontract him,” Erica Cole said. “It seems that the city is going to try to avoid litigation with Live Nation and no changes will be able to be implemented immediately.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said he has been in discussions with Live Nations for the last two weeks, since members of the council expressed a desire to revisit the contract with Waterfront Concerts. The council met with its attorney last week to discuss any potential legal ramifications from rescinding the contract.

Jennings said the council action will only apply to the Maine State Pier, which has been given a special festival designation by the City Council. The vote will not affect shows that Waterfront Concerts has booked at Merrill Auditorium, he said, although he hopes to begin working directly with Live Nations in the future for those concerts, as well.

The council had unanimously approved a fourth season of concerts at the pier back in February – months after Gray pleaded guilty to domestic violence assault. Few questions were raised at the time about Gray’s guilty plea.

Scrutiny of the deal intensified earlier this month after Cole, a former Miss Maine USA in 2005 who had been in a five-year relationship with Gray, wrote an open letter, asking the cities of Portland and Bangor to think twice about doing business with him.

“By continuing to do business with Alex Gray and his companies, you are sending a message that domestic violence is acceptable in Portland,” Cole wrote. “You are also setting an example for young men and women that – in the city of Portland – money trumps morality.”

Gray’s admission to misdemeanor domestic violence assault stemmed from a late night confrontation at his Portland condo after a night out with friends in March of 2017. Cole told police that they had been arguing intermittently throughout the night, and when they got home, Gray wanted to see her phone. Feeling threatened, she said she decided to leave and Gray demanded the keys to his condo.

According to the police report, Cole said Gray then kicked her legs out from under her while the two struggled for her purse and he put a hand on her throat, using his other hand to grab the keys, and then banged her head against the floor. Gray has disputed the details included in the police report.

Although he pleaded guilty last fall, Gray’s conviction will be expunged from his record if he abides by 22-court-ordered conditions, which include not contacting Cole.

Cole said in her blog that, while her physical injuries have healed, she continues to have “emotional trauma.”

After her blog was published, Cole met separately with Jennings and Strimling.

The issue will likely attract a lot of attention Wednesday. A large group of people who work at the pier during concerts attended last week’s council meeting, even though they were not allowed to speak and the public hearing on the issue had been scheduled for this week’s meeting. Cole said she plans to address the council Wednesday, and a “Support Erica Cole at Portland City Council Meeting” Facebook event has been created, with nearly three dozen people saying they plan to attend.

By awarding the concert series directly to Live Nation, the city will able to distance itself from Gray and his company, which he said has 25 full-time employees and hundreds of seasonal workers, while also allowing the concerts to continue.

“At the end of the day, the city will be doing business with Live Nation, and Live Nation will be doing business with whomever they do business with,” City Councilor Kim Cook said. “Maybe it’s Waterfront Concerts. Or maybe it is someone else.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray, whose East End constituents have complained about noise generated during the outdoor concerts, said that it’s “highly likely” that Live Nation will continue working with Waterfront Concerts at the Maine State Pier. She described the proposal being considered Wednesday as an imperfect solution.

“It is simply putting Waterfront Concerts at arms-length in that the city would not be directly negotiating with Alex Gray,” Ray said, noting that city workers who staff these events will likely undergo training that help them recognize and prevent sexual harassment and assault.

Although some might not think the city is going far enough, Ray, who wrote a lengthy blog post last week about how she was struggling with this issue, said it’s important that the council uphold its prior support for the concerts series, since shows have already been booked.

“It’s important for the city to honor the commitments it makes, especially when there wasn’t significantly new information two months later to pull something we had approved,” she said. “It’s about being an honorable partner in a transaction.”

Cook said the proposal reduces the city’s risk of being dragged into a costly legal battle.

“I’m pleased City Manager Jennings was able to bring forward a solution that addresses the Council’s concerns while protecting the City from a potentially very costly lawsuit,” she said.

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