PORTLAND — Stuart Norton has been operating Three Sons Lobster & Fish on Maine Wharf for more than 10 years.
Norton said his business has grown, due in large part to its location on the wharf behind Ri Ra Irish Pub and the Dry Dock Restaurant.
That area of Commercial Street is heavily travelled by tourists – especially cruise ship passengers, who are frequently attracted by Three Sons’ costumed dancing lobster on the sidewalk.
But instead of figuring out how to continue to expand, Norton and two other Maine Wharf business owners are scrambling to find new places for their businesses.
Last month, Three Sons, Chase Leavitt & Co. and Fresh Atlantic were served with eviction notices by their landlord, Great Maine Wharf LLC.
The letter said, “For safety reasons, you must vacate the building where your business is located, effective immediately.”
The landlord, who is no longer collecting rent from the businesses, did not specify a deadline for the businesses to leave or whether they would be welcomed back when and if repairs are made.
For Norton, the notice was a shock, especially since he said he had been offered a five-year lease in September. Now he said he fears that he will come to work one day and not be able to get into the building, which is beginning to buckle.
“This just came out of the blue,” he said. “I don’t know what their plans are. We haven’t been told.”
Maine Wharf is currently for sale, with an asking price of nearly $3.9 million. It has long been eyed for an upscale hotel.
Eric Cianchette, who owns that wharf, said he is seeking a permit to rebuild the pier, including a 150-foot extension approved by the city last year.
Cianchette said there have been some interested buyers, but the property is not under contract. Inspections from engineers have revealed structural problems, he said, including a broken beam or piling.
Cianchette said this is the first development proposal under the city’s new Waterfront Central Zoning rules, so it’s too early to say what the proposal would include, besides upper-level office space, or who would develop it.
“Instead of us interpreting (the city’s) new law, we want (the city) to tell us their vision,” he said.
The new law established a Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone for non-marine developments, with the exception of residences, within 150 feet of Commercial Street. It expanded permitted uses to include restaurants and retail stores.
Outside of the overlay zone, pier owners may lease up to 45 percent of their first-floor space to non-marine uses, but only after aggressively and unsuccessfully marketing that space to marine uses.
The new rules were designed to prevent the displacement of the working waterfront businesses.
Cianchette, who previously wanted to build a luxury hotel on the pier, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach about whether the city’s new leadership will be easy to work with.
“There’s a whole new regime (at City Hall),” he said. “So, we’ll see.”
Jonathan Leavitt, of Chase Leavitt, said he was never given a deadline to leave, and Cianchette, who does not directly manage the tenants, couldn’t provide a deadline, either.
But Leavitt said he hopes his company, a ship and import/export agency, will have enough time to negotiate a lease for more space at a marine complex near Ocean Gateway.
Leavitt said the new space, which he declined to identify, would be better for his business because it offers more parking.
“We’re looking at this like it’s a good thing,” he said.
That offers little comfort to Norton, whose business at times employs seven people and relies on having direct waterfront access.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “There’s nothing available on the waterfront. It’s all being changed to office space.”
Norton said he is worried the eviction spells the end of his business.
But with 20 percent of his annual business, which includes supplying local restaurants, coming in the month of December, Norton said he is taking things one day at a time.
“Right now, I’m just concentrating on the holiday,” he said. “We can’t just give up.”
Stuart Norton, of Three Sons Lobster & Fish, is the owner of one of three businesses being evicted from Maine Wharf. He said he fears his company might not find another place on the Portland waterfront.
Three businesses are being evicted from Maine Wharf in Portland, where the owners want to correct structural problems and redevelop the pier.