March 15, 2010

Baxter Building may be sold


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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Tuesday, August 19, 2008: The former Baxter Library building on Congress St., most recently used by Maine College of Art is being sold.

Staff Writer

The historic Baxter Building in downtown Portland will serve as office space for artistic design businesses if a deal between the Maine College of Art and Northland Enterprises LLC goes through this winter.

The college plans to sell the building to Northland, which in turn would invest $2.2 million in its restoration and lease it to nonprofit groups and ''creative-economy'' professionals, including architects, design companies, Web programmers and others.

Located at 619 Congress St., the Baxter Building was donated to the city of Portland in 1888 by philanthropist James Baxter, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Romanesque Revival-style building served as the Portland Public Library before MECA purchased it in 1983.

The sale price has not been disclosed, and the deal is far from sealed.

Northland Enterprises partner Rex Bell said his company is seeking potential tenants, which it needs to secure financing for the project.

''We've got a package together, but until we have a tenant that is willing to commit to us, we can't go much further,'' Bell said. ''Assuming we can locate a tenant or tenants over the next couple of months, we're looking to close with MECA in mid-December and start construction soon afterward. We hope to deliver the space this time next year.''

MECA and Northland previously worked together to convert the Everett Hotel on Oak Street into a residence hall.

The college has used the Baxter Building for a variety of purposes over the years, including studio space and a darkroom for photographers, a computer lab, office space and as the college library.

The decision to sell the Baxter is part of MECA's long-held plan to concentrate its operation at the Porteous Building, 522 Congress St., said college President Jim Baker.

As part of that plan, MECA struck a deal earlier this year that enabled the Portland Museum of Art to acquire the Greek Revival-style Clapp House on Spring Street, which MECA had used in various capacities since 1914.

By shedding both historic properties, the college can sharpen its focus on Porteous and bring almost all students and staff under one roof, Baker said. A renovation of the one-time department store continues.

Jessica Tomlinson, director of public relations for MECA, said it was unusual for the college to announce a possible sale before financing was complete.

The college did so because it wanted to call attention to the Baxter Building's potential as a magnet for other cultural enterprises, she said.

''We want to be sure this building continues to have a place in Portland's cultural corridor,'' Tomlinson said. ''That is important to us. It is a gorgeous building, and it's important that it continues to function in a cultural way.''

Bell said Northland plans an extensive restoration, including the addition of an elevator and possibly a floor in the back of the building.

Northland has hired a consultant to help it navigate restrictions and requirements associated with restoring historic property, he said.

When completed, the Baxter will have about 25,000 square feet of office space. Bell is confident Northland will find suitable tenants.

''That's a fair amount of office, but we're talking to someone right now who might take as much as 20,000 square feet,'' he said.

''For us, as an owner, it would be best if we had one single tenant. But more than likely, we will have multiple tenants, and that's OK too.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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