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Film production at South Portland armory piques public interest

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Film production at South Portland armory piques public interest

SOUTH PORTLAND — About a dozen residents attended a public hearing Wednesday on a proposal to rezone the former National Guard Armory on Broadway as a sound stage for films and commercials.

It was the first of what could be three public hearings on the proposal if the City Council decides on June 22 to pursue the project. 

Cape Elizabeth resident Eric Matheson said he and a group of investors would like to purchase the armory and convert it into a turn-key business condominium for films and commercials.

"I have loved that building ever since I laid eyes on it," Matheson said. "It just looks like a sound stage."

Matheson, who has worked in the film industry for 40 years, proposed converting the 10,000-square-foot drill hall into the sound stage, noting that the steel beams in the ceiling were built to hang heavy structures rather than just support snow loads. That would allow filmmakers to set up an automated lighting system, rather than using ladders and hanging them manually.

Near the drill hall there is a kitchen with a grease trap that Matheson said would be ideal for cooking shows and to serve stage crews. The 17,000 square feet of office space, meanwhile, could be used by other industry related professionals, including photographers, wardrobe makers, post production and accountants. The foyer could be converted into an art gallery, he said. 

City Planner Tex Haeuser said the city is proposing a conditional zone for the building and the 2.75 acres of land surrounding it. The city recommends changing the single-family residential designation to a multi-family zone that would allow the sound stage along with other special exceptions that would require Planning Board approval. 

The proposed conditions would restrict outside set-building or filming to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., unless filmmakers receive a special permit from the city. Access to the property from Anthoine Street would have to be created if more than 120 vehicle trips are generated at peak commuting hours. Also, no significant changes can be made to the outside of the Armory without City Council approval and a public hearing. 

Only one of the half-dozen residents who spoke expressed serious concern about the proposal, which also seeks to rezone a Central Maine Power Co. right of way that serves as a buffer for neighbors.

Hudson Street resident Dennis Gilbert said he is concerned that city ordinances would eventually force Matheson to build a large parking lot all the way up to his property line, which was the case when a museum was proposed for the site before the city bought it. Although there is a condition that a 20-foot buffer would be required if the CMP land is used, Gilbert argued the city did not have a good track record.

"The only buffer that is necessary is a chain-linked fence," he said. "That's a serious problem. I can't think of a buffer that has been maintained in this city."

Other residents, meanwhile, were more enthusiastic about the project. 

Memphis Howe, founder and CEO of Vacationland Pictures, said it's not a matter of whether the film industry will come to Maine, but where it will land. Howe said there are two other sound stages in the works for Maine in Ogunquit and Bangor.

Although Matheson suggested the Legislature's recent decision to put off tax incentives for films until next session was a setback to bringing film production to Maine, Howe said incentives aren't enough.

"That legislation was about giving money away; that's backwards," Howe, a South Portland resident, said. "Tax incentives alone will not work, we need infrastructure like this."

Both Howe and Matheson extolled the economic impacts a sounds stage would have for the local economy. Matheson said communities where "Empire Falls" was filmed are still feeling the economic benefits of the millions of dollars spent by producers and crews. He predicted the same for local hardware stores, restaurants, UPS stores, hotels and retails stores. 

"It will add to the value of Mill Creek in a major way," Matheson said. 

Meanwhile, Matheson said the city, which would have a seat on the business condo's board of directors, would open up a stream of revenue in the form of property taxes, permits and licenses. It would also rid itself of a maintenance and insurance liability, while maintaining the benefit of being able to store and service public safety equipment in building.

Knightville resident Rommy Brown said she supported the sound stage concept, as long as it is sensitive to the neighbors' concerns. Although Matheson only wants to restore the original building, Brown took issue with zoning language that would allow the armory to be torn down by a future developer, as long as it was approved by the council. 

The armory, bought in 2006 for $650,000 in bankruptcy court, sits at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.

"This is a very significant parcel to this city," Brown said. "I would hope the building would be there for some time." 

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