PORTLAND – At least three members of the City Council support granting a tax break to ensure that northern New England’s largest law firm remains in Portland.

The council’s Community Development Committee unanimously approved the tax break Wednesday night to provide an incentive for Waterfront Maine to renovate the Cumberland Self-Storage building at 258 Commercial St. into office space.

The plan will be presented to the City Council on Monday night before it goes to a public hearing and a final vote on June 7.

Councilors Cheryl Leeman, Dory Richards Waxman and John Anton voted for the tax break, which would benefit Pierce Atwood.

The law firm plans to move 175 employees from its offices at One Monument Square into the renovated five-story brick building on the waterfront. Pierce Atwood would be the primary tenant, with the first floor reserved for marine use.

“What I see is a huge opportunity to take a building that has been an eyesore for as long as I can remember and turn it into a really classy building on our waterfront,” said Leeman, chair of the Community Development Committee. “There is a benefit to keeping 175 people in our downtown and I think the deal that has been structured is a fair one.”

The building has stood on Portland’s waterfront since the mid-1800s, and been used to store everything from molasses to chickens. Located next to the Portland Fish Pier, the building is now used for self-storage.

In 1988, the Gulf of Maine Aquarium considered moving into the 100,000-square foot building, but the deal fell through.

Pierce Atwood, which has been at One Monument Square since 1971, began looking at other options with its lease due to expire at the end of March 2011.

Dennis Keeler, a partner in Pierce Atwood, said his law firm became interested earlier this year in a location in South Portland.

“The firm in January was very close to moving out of the city,” Keeler told the Community Development Committee. “It was only at that point, as a courtesy, that we decided to approach the city and to take a step back.”

Keeler said his firm’s history in Portland — it has been here since the late 1800s — and the prospect of playing a role in revitalizing Portland’s waterfront were factors in the firm’s decision to stay.

“What we are proposing is to bring this building back to life, to create a Class A office building on Portland’s waterfront,” said Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director.

The taxable value of the property is now about $1 million, which generates $17,000 a year in property taxes. Mitchell said the redevelopment would add $12 million in value to the city’s tax rolls, generating about $212,000 a year in new taxes.

The “credit enhancement agreement” would generate an estimated $2.7 million in taxes for the city over 20 years.

In return, Waterfront Maine would get a tax break of $2.8 million over 20 years.

The only person to criticize the proposal was Steven Scharf, president of the Portland Taxpayers Association.

“I don’t think this is the right thing for Portland to be doing,” Scharf said. “We shouldn’t be encouraging businesses to move around the city of Portland. We should be encouraging them to come to the city of Portland.”

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones attended Wednesday’s meeting. He said it would be a significant economic loss if Pierce Atwood was to leave the city. He said the firm’s employees shop and eat in Portland’s downtown.

Mavodones said councilors will consider public comments on June 7, but he predicted that a majority of the council will support the tax break.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]“What we are proposing is to bring this building back to life, to create a Class A office building on Portland’s waterfront.”

Greg Mitchell

Portland economic development director