South Portland welcomes Cracker Barrel with open arms
SOUTH PORTLAND — The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to build a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant near the Maine Mall.
Cracker Barrel representatives said they expect to employ as many as 200 people.
"Today is a great day for South Portland and the state of Maine," Planning Board member Don Russell said. "I can't think of a better fit."
"I'm very happy for the job opportunities for our citizens," Planning Board member Caroline Hendry said.
Plans call for a 207-seat diner with a 3,600-square-foot gift shop to be built on 1.5 acres of land the Tennessee-based company is leasing from owners of the Wyndham Portland Airport Hotel at 363 Maine Mall Road.
Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Julie Davis on Wednesday said she did not know when construction would begin or when the store and restaurant would open.
"We are so cautious," Davis said, noting the level of excitement that typically accompanies a new Cracker Barrel. "We try not to build up expectations. Until there is a shovel in the ground, we like to keep it low key."
Site developer Kevin Kerbo traveled from Tennessee to make a presentation to the Planning Board. Kerbo said Cracker Barrel seeks to provide a "laid back" atmosphere for families, and noted the restaurant does not serve alcoholic beverages.
The trademark feature of the building will be a 1,430 square feet porch with a metal, overhanging roof. The 12-foot-wide area will be equipped with the company's trademark rocking chairs, where people can relax and play chess.
Customers may also purchase rocking chairs and the porch may be used to host sidewalk sales, whenever the gift store needs to liquidate surplus merchandise. Kerbo said the city can expect a couple of such events a year.
"It will stay for two or three days and then it's over with," he said. "I promise you it won't be going on every month or two months."
Kerbo said the restaurant and store, to be colored "Cracker Barrel Brown," will be decorated with 900 to 1,000 knick knacks. Whenever possible, the company will use items that reflect South Portland's coastal location, history and heritage.
Board members applauded the thoroughness of the application, but wondered whether there will be sufficient parking and safe pedestrian flow. The board was also concerned about ground-mounted lighting for two pylon signs – a 25-foot tall sign facing the Maine Turnpike and one facing Maine Mall Road. They convinced the company to change the lighting to prevent light pollution.
There were no issues similar to those raised previously in Scarborough, where a plan to have Cracker Barrel in the Scarborough Gateway development near Cabela's was killed because of design issues. The town did not support Cracker Barrel's desire to have a large sign that would be visible from the Maine Turnpike.
Kerbo said Cracker Barrel is excited to open a restaurant in Maine. The company, founded in 1969 and now publicly owned, has an almost cult-like following thanks to its ubiquitous growth along the nation's highways. It operates nearly 600 stores in 41 states.
"We really want to be here," Kerbo said. "You don't realize how excited we get when we open up in a new state. We hope it's not the last one we open in your state."
In other business, the board unanimously approved a subdivision for seven single-family homes on the former baseball fields of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 832 at 50 Peary Terrace.
Planning Director Tex Haeuser said the project contains a record-setting 20 conditions of approval. The number of conditions, though, had less to do with the specific project and more to do with a change in policy, he said.
Board comments and concerns once again were turned to storm-water issues. The plan relies on small depressions, or ditches known as swales, to collect and absorb the first few inches of rainfall.
Board members wondered how homeowners would be educated on proper maintenance of the swales, so they will be kept clear of debris and not intentionally filled. Sebago Technics engineer Shawn Frank said homeowners would receive a "nice little booklet" on maintaining the system.
The project, being done by Gary Crosby and Kirk Ordway, also includes reconfiguring a smaller parking lot for the VFW, which now includes an annex for the Maine Military Museum.
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