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Dunkin' Donuts developers buy South Portland church; lease of city land still possible

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Dunkin' Donuts developers buy South Portland church; lease of city land still possible

SOUTH PORTLAND — A Methuen, Mass., company that has Dunkin' Donuts franchises throughout New England and upstate New York completed its purchase of St. John the Evangelist Church on Dec. 11.

But the future of the 611 Main St. church remains uncertain. The company has not applied for a demolition permit, and Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said there is still the possibility Cafua will lease nearby city property for a new Dunkin' Donuts.

Cafua officials have not answered questions about their plans for the church or the 2.3-acre parcel of city land at Westbrook and Main streets. They have also stopped distributing several local newspapers at their stores in greater Portland.

Jennings on Monday said the city is having its land appraised to help determine a lease price, and his sense is Cafua prefers the city land to the church property.

Along with the church, built in 1940, the company bought an 8,200-square-foot former church school and 51-year-old house on Aspen Avenue, formerly used as a parsonage.

A parish committee recommended St. John the Evangelist be closed almost a year ago. The final mass was held there in early September.

Closing of the sale has eliminated interest in buying and preserving the church by the Unity lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows in Portland.

The lodge in June about proposed purchasing the church, school and parsonage if the agreement with Cafua fell through. It proposed buying the properties without  financing, and planned to preserve the church and allow its use for weddings and funerals. It also planned to allow the South Portland Food Cupboard, which has moved to 130 Thadeus St., to continue operating rent-free in the church basement.

But Lodge Treasurer Ralph Trynor said Monday the group will not do business with Cafua.

"And as a South Portland resident," Trynor said, "I am against the city purchasing the church in any way, because the upkeep will be too much on the taxpayers and we can use city funds for better thing."

City officials and councilors have been discussing the future of the church  for more than six months, including a June meeting with Cafua executives. Last month, city Planning Director Tex Haeuser said the meeting centered on preserving the church. The church was also discussed at a council executive session, according to Councilor Tom Blake.

Early last month, councilors agreed City Manager Jim Gailey should move forward on a potential lease for the vacant land at Westbrook and Main streets, adjacent to the Dunkin' Donuts at 633 Main St. that is now operated by Cafua on a site leased from property owners Jean and Tracy Ginn.

Jennings has also discussed the potential lease with leaders of the Congregation Bet Ha'am synagogue, which uses some of the land for overflow parking. He said it was a matter of keeping the congregation aware of the situation.

Whether Cafua and the city agree to a lease, or if the company decides to pursue its original plan to raze the church and replace it with a Dunkin' Donuts, Haeuser on Monday said Planning Board approval will be needed.

Thirlmere Avenue resident Brian Frost, who was informed of Cafua's plans during a Nov. 21 meeting with company executive Greg Nolan and other church neighbors, Tuesday said he is concerned about tacit, if unofficial, approval from the city.

"Hopefully, Cafua was not given an implicit assurance of City Council approval of the curb cuts they require, or widening this section of Main Street to four lanes, and Cafua is forced to negotiate with the city in good faith and becoming a partner in finding a more suitable/adaptive reuse plan for the property that is consistent with a residential neighborhood," Frost said.

Cafua, meanwhile, on Dec. 27 said it would no longer distribute free publications at five of its restaurants in South Portland, Scarborough and Portland. The decision, announced in an email from Scarborough Dunkin' Donuts manager Matt Strom, affects at least five weekly newspapers, including The Forecaster.

There was no suggestion in Strom's message that the decision was related to news coverage of the company or its plans for the church.

Strom on Monday said Cafua executives in Massachusetts did not tell him why the Dunkin' Donuts shops at 633 Main St., 617 Broadway and 325 Gorham Road in South Portland; 544 Deering Ave. (Woodford's Corner) in Portland, and 196 U.S. Route 1 in Scarborough will no longer carry the newspapers.

Strom offered to forward further questions to Cafua executives, who did not respond.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.