2014-10-03 / Front Page

South Portland armory proves to be a slow sell

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Ideas abound for the city’s former armory, but no action on those ideas has been taken. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) Ideas abound for the city’s former armory, but no action on those ideas has been taken. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — An office complex. Condo units. A college. A roller derby track. A haunted house.

Those are just some of the ideas that have been presented for re-use of South Portland’s old National Guard Armory. Nearly 20 prospective buyers have toured the building since the city put it up for sale June 16. Despite significant tire kicking, however, no one has made an offer – and the city itself may be the reason why.

Built in 1941 in an art deco style and located just off the Casco Bay Bridge at the gateway to the city, the 25,000-squarefoot, cavernous structure was purchased by South Portland in 2006 for $650,000. But after failed lease attempts, first for a glass museum, then for a movie sound stage, the city council decided this past spring to cut its losses.

Almost no money has been used to maintain the building since it fell into city hands, and a hole in the roof, created when a storm took down the flagpole perched atop the western turret, was never repaired. The water damage is significant, city officials admit.

In 2012, Greater Portland Landmarks put the building, now assessed by the city at just $461,000, on its inaugural list of “Places in Peril.”

Still, City Manger Jim Gailey was high on prospects for selling the building in June, when city councilors decided to let it go. Between that point and the earlier exit of Fore River Soundstage from the building, Gailey had shown the building to prospective buyers “at least 10 to 15 times,” he said at the time.

However, in preparation for the sale, the city redrew the line between the armory and the public safety building located next door. That allowed the fire and police departments to retain use of a newly built parking area, constructed partly on the armory lot.The change ensures sufficient room for firefighters to turn around the city ladder truck, but the new property line is now located just 15 feet off the west foundation of the armory. Once the fire department clears out following completion of the new public works complex on High Street, set to break ground next spring, that change would make it difficult, if not impossible for a buyer to use that side of the building. Adding to the access issue is an electronic gate on Armory Street leading to the public safety parking lot.

Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings explained the difficulty at the most recent meeting of South Portland’s Economic Development Committee. Jennings, a former developer who remains a silent partner in the Thompson Point project across the river in Portland, pointed out that the new property line has hobbled negotiations with buyers in many cases, and killed one potential deal outright, which committee members had thought was a sure thing.

“The problem is that we took a significant piece of that property for the public safety building, the city just took it, and you can’t access the entire right side of that building as it’s currently configured,” said Jennings. “There has to be some kind of accommodation, because you can’t just shut off one side of a building.

“That [development] was my life for a while and I wouldn’t buy the damn thing if I couldn’t access a whole side of the building,” said Jennings. “So, that’s what killed that deal.”

While Gailey acknowledged in a recent interview that the one deal he was close to sealing fell through — in fact “no offers have been made” to date, he said — the property line “in not set in stone.” The city is willing to negotiate the property line, he said.

Meanwhile, the city has stepped up its marketing efforts, moving beyond newspaper ads to erect a sign outside the property, an expense Gailey said he was initially hoping to avoid.

“I’m giving two more tours on Friday, and I’ll probably leave for the day after that, because I can’t breath after I’ve been in the place,” Jennings told the committee. “It’s brutal. It would be a perfect haunted house. There’s no doubt about that.”

In April, the city council amended its process for selling public property. Gailey is free to sell the building whenever he finds a buyer to his liking that meets the minimum sale price set by the city council in executive session. There will be no sealed bid process.

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