What does a doctoral thesis that studies how 1950s artists and scientists interacted with Eastern religion have in common with real estate development? For most of us, very little. But for Chris Thompson, the topic provided a deep understanding of how to combine seemingly disparate parts to create an impact. He uses that understanding to find ways to bring unlikely things to life.
Thompson started his career as a professor of cultural studies at the Maine College of Art. However, he chose to dive into real estate development in his home state of Maine, making his biggest mark in the city of Portland. This leap from professor to a developer isn’t as random as it may seem on the surface. Thompson’s stepfather was a real estate developer, and Thompson credits him with inspiring his interest in the industry.
From Thompson’s perspective, real estate development is a way to add something of value to the earth. But first, you have to convince others that what you want to add is of value. So far in Portland, he’s been successful in both the convincing and the implementing of his vision.
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Thompson left teaching in 2005 after his stepfather urged him to “put his money where his mouth is” and take a step into the development world. By 2009, Thompson was working on plans for the site that would become his landmark project with a huge impact on Portland: Thompson’s Point.
The Thompson’s Point project is a still-developing site on a former dilapidated and otherwise neglected slice of land on the Fore River. Thompson’s vision and subsequent project revitalized the area with concerts, an ice skating rink, soon-to-be residences, a hotel and a tubing hill for winter.
Thompson credits the team that works with him for the project’s success. This team includes many Maine brands and vendors that populate the site and sell their products during concerts, events and when the ice skating rink is open. And Thompson has been deliberate in building that team.
As he points out, “There are lots of people who could come in and take up 24,000 square feet, but we want people who want to build a neighborhood and dig in and help make it happen together.” Part of his vision is not only building that team but letting them help shape the bigger vision for Thompson’s Point. He seeks out their ideas and says that “patient listening” is part of the process of moving the project forward.
Thompson is adamant to make note that “There really is a whole team that made Thompson’s Point happen. Terry Nadeau who is our financial officer and former partner of my stepfather. And Jed Troubh who is my fellow partner in this project shares equal credit for the success we are enjoying.”
Building that team and the right group of tenants and events is part of why Thompson’s Point seemed to take off slowly. It’s been seven years since initial plans were developed. That was intentional, and Thompson sees it paying off now.
“We let this take shape the way it needed to, instead of forcing it just for a better, quicker return on investment…instead we have put something in Portland that feels like Portland, that feels like it belongs here,” says Thompson.
And people from Portland and surrounding areas who are flocking to the site certainly agree with him. The concert venue brings in big names along with sizable crowds. The ice skating rink alone brought in 30,000 people last year.
This year Thompson plans to expand winter events with an eye toward keeping people in Portland during the winter. He wants to see more people take advantage of what Portland has to offer rather than just heading off to ski or huddling inside their homes. Thompson believes that just because the tourists are gone doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. In fact, he is taking on the idea and slogan of “winter is the new summer” for Portland.
But for Thompson, this project isn’t enough. He’s also involved in a large development project in Portsmouth, NH, on a site across the street from his stepfather’s marquee project – the Portsmouth Sheraton. Thompson has come full circle to the initial reason he got involved in real estate.
For all his successes, Thompson is mindful that he didn’t get to where he and his project are without a few stumbles. “Just about every week we hit a roadblock,” he explains, “but with the right attitude about failure you can get past such problems.”
Thompson urges entrepreneurs to “Fail, fail again, fail better. Because failure is part of taking risk in life. The thing is to hedge against imploding if you fail because it’s inevitable you’re going to have mistakes.” This theory has certainly paid off for Thompson and the city of Portland.
Thompson grew up in Maine, earned his Ph.D. in New York City, lived in London, and eventually returned to his home state. He continues to play a key role in Portland’s dramatic economic and cultural upswing while keeping a keen eye on far more than just the profitability of his projects. He cares about his city; he cares about the local businesses he works with, and he has been successful at using his development to benefit both.
That is why Chris Thompson is a Maine Icon.