Rewrite for former South Portland Armory: Fore River Sound Stage owner revises business plan

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Although it has not been a year of bright lights in the big city for Eric Matheson, the owner of Fore River Sound Stage said he still hopes for a productive future in the former South Portland Armory.

“I am very optimistic about it, I am a patient man,” Matheson, 70, of Cape Elizabeth said this week.

For more than 40 years, Matheson has created sets and effects for movies; he estimates it to be 88 productions. He has simulated boat explosions in New York harbor, built sets for “Pink Panther II,” and twice worked with Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges.

Almost a year ago, Matheson and the city reached a 15-year lease agreement for the 70-year-old building at the corner of Broadway and Route 77. The city gained a tenant for the building it bought in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for $650,000 in 2006, and Matheson got a place to help develop what he thinks will be a burgeoning film industry.

After a year, the space has been used for photo shoots, smaller independent film production and post-production work for “Backgammon,” a suspense film shot in Cape Elizabeth.

At the same time, Matheson has had to deal with the loss of investors, perpetually leaky roofs, basement floods and a lack of plumbing and heating in the 10,000-square-foot building.

Inside the hulking World War II-era structure, faded paint on the wooden floor marks basketball courts, a ceiling above a darkened hallway is punctured with holes, and tools are no longer stored in a garage bay because of water damage.

Carts of electric lights and set equipment, several table saws, a room full of props left over from “Backgammon” and a partially built studio space for interviews hint at how the space can be use, but Matheson admitted it has been a struggle.

“We are restructuring everything, we really need an angel somewhere,” he said.

The main portion of the former armory offers two stories of open space and thousands of feet to build sets, hang lights and create a world within a world for filming commercials or features.

The sides and corners of the building offer space for offices, wardrobe rooms, production booths, and storage for short- and long-term use by production companies. Matheson is also on hand to lend expertise or swing a hammer.

Acreage outside provides room for outdoor filming that fits Mathson’s skills.

“I could go outside here and build a four-story structure on scaffolding,” he said. “Of course, it would take special permitting.”

Matheson said “Backgammon” was shot by Fischer Productions, a Utah-based company lured to Maine to film a $1.2 million production.

While not a bad start, Matheson considers it a fraction of the money larger film companies will bring to Maine, given the right tax incentives and production facilities.

When the companies come, Matheson said the building will also provide opportunities for very talented Mainers to work locally instead of travelling all over the country, and tangible benefits for local economies serving film crews.

Revising the tax code to match incentives offered in states like Massachusetts or Louisiana is less an immediate goal for Matheson than getting the roof repaired in time for winter.

“We need plumbing, roofing and electrical estimates to go forward,” he said.

Creating the lease took nearly three years as Matheson, his partners and city councilors wrangled over the final details as the site was rezoned.

City efforts to repair the armory facade stalled when the Maine Office of Community Development did not award a $100,000 grant that would have been matched by funds from the city’s tax increment finance district around the Hannaford Bros. store at Mill Creek.

“We haven’t moved towards looking for further funding at this time,” City Manager James Gailey said.

He said city officials are aware of leak problems and are in “very preliminary talks with the tenant” about funding repairs.

While he has sought new investors, Matheson said he has been able to make the monthly $550 rent payments. When he finds renters for planned offices and sound and video editing areas, 60 percent of those rents will go to the city on the stipulation that 40 percent of what the city receives will be dedicated to building maintenance and repair.

While it has been a daunting year, Matheson said he is undeterred.

“I don’t see any problems here,” he said. “I think we can do this.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

The lights are ready and the space is open for large-scale productions in the former South Portland Armory, where Fore River Sound Stage owner Eric Matheson is revising his business plan after a year in the building.

Exterior facade work at the former South Portland Armory has not started because grant funding did not come through.

A year after signing a lease to occupy the former South Portland Armory, Eric Matheson is looking for new investors and hoping to make building repairs.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.