SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The city hopes to preserve St. John the Evangelist Church by encouraging a potential buyer to instead lease nearby city-owned land for a new doughnut shop.
If the city’s proposal succeeds, another buyer is prepared to purchase and maintain the church at 611 Main St., which may otherwise be demolished.
Without a formal vote, city councilors in Monday reached a consensus for City Manager Jim Gailey to negotiate a lease with Methuen, Mass.-based Cafua Management Co. for all or part of 2.3 acres of land at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets.
If an agreement is reached, the property could be used for a new Dunkin’ Donuts and possibly corporate offices for Cafua’s Maine operations, city Economic Development Director Jon Jennings said in the council workshop.
Cafua operates Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in New England and New York, including one at 633 Main St., next to the city parcel.
The company is considering razing the church and building a new restaurant. It presented plans to church neighbors at a private meeting Nov. 21.
Company officials have also discussed their intentions with city officials, including Gailey, Jennings and city Planning Director Tex Haueser. The fate of the church, which closed in September, was also discussed in a council executive session last summer, according to Councilor Tom Blake.
Jennings and Gailey said Cafua officials are open to lease discussions for the city land, but Jennings said they require an option to buy the land in the future.
Cafua executive Greg Nolan did not return several calls seeking comment.
Odd Fellows offer
Monday’s workshop session of about 75 minutes was a chance for Thornton Heights neighbors to express their opinions about replacing the church with a Dunkin’ Donuts.
It also provided an opportunity for members of the Unity lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows to elaborate on their desire to buy and preserve the church property, which includes an 8,200-square-foot school built in 1960, and a house previously used as a parsonage.
Unity members Ralph Trynor and Fred Stuart on Monday said the lodge is prepared to buy and reuse the church properties.
“The biggest opportunity of saving the church is through this lease,” said Trynor, the lodge treasurer.
Last week, Trynor said the Unity lodge now shares space at Woodfords Corner in Portland, and hopes to use the former St. John school for meeting space.
The church could still be used for weddings and funerals, he said, and the South Portland Food Cupboard could be invited to return to the church basement for free.
The pantry moved to 130 Thadeus St. last week.
Trynor said the lodge approached Monsignor Michael Henchal about buying the church as soon as members learned it was on the market, but the properties were already under contract.
If the contract falls through, Trynor said the lodge has the money to buy the properties, but the offer will be reduced because the school roof need repairs.
On Wednesday, Henchal, who oversees the parish cluster of churches in the city, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, declined comment on the existing contract, except to say it does not list Cafua Management as a buyer.
However, Cafua Management has created subsidiary, limited liability companies for real estate purchases, including Laconia Real Estate LLC, which bought a historic property in Laconia, N.H., in 2003. It built an adjacent Dunkin’ Donuts in 2009, according to Laconia tax records.
Henchal said there are also contract deadlines, but declined to disclose details.
Mayor Jerry Jalbert on Monday said he does not want to see the church torn down, but warned the audience, including about 30 Thornton Heights residents, the city cannot step in to resolve any issues Cafua Management has regarding the sales contract.
“There are still some private parties that need to work out some issues,” he said.
The proposed lease would be a rarity in the city, Gailey said, and a potentially easier route to providing an alternative for Cafua, since putting the city land up for bid would not guarantee the company would be the buyer.
Cafua Management leases its 633 Main St. space from property owners Jean and Tracy Ginn, so it is not technically an abutter entitled to buy the property directly from the city in a no-bid process, Gailey said.
The city land has been used as a park, and was the site of an outdoor skating rink, but Gailey said it is not an ideal recreation site.
“We don’t see a lot of value in this as an open space,” he said.
Church neighbors made it clear Monday they are concerned about traffic and noise from a Dunkin’ Donuts replacing the church.
“It is a lovely feeling to come upon that building and admire the pretty houses next to it,” Wytheburn Road resident Val Bramble said.
Thirlmere Avenue resident Brian Frost, who proposed the city swap its land for church property and gathered petition signatures asking councilors to block redevelopment of the church, continued to press for preservation.
“Demolition of a community icon is not a good use,” he said.
Cafua’s track record
Demolition is not a practice unknown to Cafua Management.
On Nov. 27, Laconia Real Estate LLC filed an application to demolish what is called the Hathaway House at 1106 Union Ave. in Laconia, N.H.
Greg Nolan is listed as the contact on the application. The project contractors are San Miguel Construction, with Nolan as contact, at the same business address as Cafua and Laconia Real Estate.
Razing the Hathaway House angered Laconia resident Dorothy Duffy, who with others has picketed outside the building. Duffy said last Friday the house is one of the few remnants of Laconia history left on the main street on the eastern side of Lake Winnepesaukee, and its demise would be the result of willful neglect by Laconia Real Estate.
“I’m sure the house is going to come down because they have made it look so bad,” she said.
Duffy, who sits on the five-member Laconia Heritage Commission, said Nolan vowed to preserve the house, built just before the Civil War.
The commission offered input including exterior color schemes. But the company halted painting halfway through the job, she said.
“They are testing our intellect and trying to make fools out of us, and we know we are not fools,” Duffy said.
Cafua is also seeking to raze what was known as the Plunkett School in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, to build a Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of First and Fenn streets near the city center.
The school, built in 1909, closed in 1977. It was put on the market about 25 years ago, and has been eyed by Cafua for at least four years, according to reports in the The Berkshire Eagle and The Pittsfield Gazette newspapers.
Cheri Rodhouse, a Pittsfield building inspection clerk, on Monday said the demolition and building permits were sought in October and November by building owner Forer Development.
And in October, Cafua’s plans to build a new Dunkin’ Donuts in Augusta were halted when city councilors rejected a requested zoning change that would have allowed the company to demolish an old gas station on Davenport Street and build a restaurant in its place.