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South Portland Armory envisioned as 1-stop shop for film industry

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South Portland Armory envisioned as 1-stop shop for film industry

SOUTH PORTLAND — A local movie-industry technician is hoping to shoot up to three films at the former National Guard Armory on Broadway at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.

Before that can happen, however, the city will have to provide conditional zoning and go against the recommendations of a committee that studied reuse options for the rundown building, bought by the city in 2006 for $650,000 in bankruptcy court. 

Residents will have the chance to sound off on the sound stage proposal at a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, June 17, from 7-9 p.m., in council chambers of City Hall, 25 Cottage Road.  

The idea of using the Armory as a sound stage for films and commercials was first floated about a year ago at a public forum.

Cape Elizabeth resident Eric Matheson, who has about 40 years of experience building film sets, said he wants to use the Armory's 10,000 square-foot drill hall for a place where both big-budget and independent, local producers could create films, infomercials and commercials. Matheson said he would also like to house other industry-related professions in the Armory's 12,000 square feet of office space, making it a one-stop shop for film producers. 

"It's a pretty building," Matheson said. "It says, 'movies.' It really does."

City Manager Jim Gailey said there have been no discussions about whether to rent or sell the building, if the conditional zone is approved. But Matheson said he and a handful of partners would ultimately like to buy building.

"The people I have spoken to will have a lot more interest once the zoning is taken care of," he said.  

The Armory is currently being used for storage of public safety and public works vehicles and equipment. Matheson said he supports allowing the city to continue using the west wing to store some of its special response equipment and even suggested expanding access to allow the Fire Department to comfortably service ladder trucks. 

But converting the Armory into a sound stage was not considered by a committee formed in 2006 to study reuse options. The committee ultimately recommended leaving the current residential zoning in place and converting the building into a consolidated City Hall.  

But Matheson said he is encouraged by his initial discussions with city administrators and elected officials. 

"They're really approaching this as a real possibility," Matheson said. 

Matheson, who has 84 film technical credits (including "Empire Falls," "Ironweed," "Crocodile Dundee II," and "Cider House Rules"), said he has been looking to build a sound stage in Southern Maine for about a decade, a dream nearly realized in the old J.J. Nissen building in Portland. 

While the state is well known for its outdoor scenic beauty, Matheson said he hopes the sound stage, coupled with film incentives being considered by the Legislature, will give producers reason to conduct their indoor filming and editing in Maine. The facility, which would be rented to producers, would also give film students a place to gain experience.

"There are a lot of people in Maine making films," he said. "They just need a place to do it." 

Although it would take a couple years to fully convert the Armory, Matheson said, with a few improvements filming could begin soon after a zone change. He said he does not expect noise to be a problem for neighbors, since the sound stage would have to be sound proof to keep noise out during filming.  

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the city is considering a conditional zone for the Armory and 2.5 acres of accompanying land. The zone would resemble the multi-family residential zone, only allowing some non-retail and non-office uses, like a sound stage, as a special exception use. It would require Planning Board approval. 

Haeuser said the city is also considering special buffering requirements for the site, limits on outdoor set-building, secondary access to the site from Anthoine Street and a requirement to maintain architectural characteristics of the 1940s-era building, unless otherwise waived by the City Council. 

"It is extremely preliminary and meant as a starting point for discussions," Haeuser said of the conditional zone. 

Residents who would like to submit comments in writing can e-mail Haeuser or  Assistant City Manager Erik Carson

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net