The developer who purchased the former armory at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland last year is finally ready to break ground on the project, which will bring a convenience store and gas station to the area.

Excavators are now on site, and Jim Howard, president and CEO of Priority Real Estate Group, said this week he expects work to begin as soon as his crews get a demolition permit from the city.

“We should be under way by the end of the week,” Howard said Monday. “We’ve been working on this project for the last 24 months, and we are anxious to get started.”

Howard said the delay in redeveloping the historic armory is due in part to the uniqueness of the building and Priority Real Estate’s pledge to the city to not only maintain, but also fully restore the front facade.

While Howard said his company has experience in redeveloping historic structures, “there is no other building like this one.”

The armory was built in 1941 in the Art Deco style.

The city sold the armory to Priority Real Estate for $700,000 after several failed reuses of the building, including unfulfilled plans for a glass museum and the brief use of the vast structure as a sound stage. At one point, the city even considered reusing the armory as a new City Hall.

Howard said there “have been some challenges” in regard to the $4.5 million redevelopment plan for the armory, including getting a zone change from the city, receiving the necessary permits from the state and putting together “the particulars of the renovation. But we’re now ready.”

He said the convenience store and gas station, which will be operated under the Irving brand, is slated to open sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Howard said the entire second floor of the property has also been leased to one tenant, although the deal has not yet been finalized, so he could not share the details. He did say, however, that having the building fully leased was also a key component in getting the redevelopment project off the ground.

Both floors of the new building will be 5,000 square feet in size, Howard said. He added that the the Irving station and convenience store will be known as the Rusty Lantern Market and will be operated by the same people who own a similar gas station on outer Congress Street in Portland.

Under the redevelopment plan, Priority Real Estate will demolish the former drill hall at the back of the armory, while re-pointing and restoring the brick facade of what what Howard called the “head house,” which fronts Broadway.

“I think this will be a great fit for the community” when it’s finished, Howard said.

This week, Josh Reny, South Portland’s assistant city manager and economic development director said the city is “very pleased this project is finally coming to fruition. The property is at a key gateway and the developer has done an excellent job on the design to preserve the historic building facade.”

He added, “This is a very unique project and an unconventional re-use of a historic property. We’re also happy to return this longtime tax-exempt property back to the tax rolls.”

Jane Eberle, president of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce, said this week that “as the building deteriorated and that incredibly beautiful and iconic architectural facade seemed in jeopardy, I was hoping something good would happen.”

The developer, she said, “will preserve the facade, bring good businesses to Mill Creek, and bring the gateway into South Portland back to life. Though we haven’t officially taken a position on it, from a chamber perspective, bringing good businesses to a community in a scale and form that enhance and complement the surrounding area is a win-win.”

In addition, Eberle said,  the project “could also potentially tie in with the proposal for an elevated crosswalk at that intersection, helping to move people on foot and bike in and around our wonderful (downtown) businesses.”

In addition to redeveloping the building, Priority Real Estate also has plans to extensively landscape the property to include a gazebo and other public amenities. The company has also provided an easement across the site, which will allow the city to extend its downtown walking trails.

Although the project also initially called for some type of first-floor visitor’s center, that proposal has fallen through, Howard said this week.

Excavators are ready to start work on the redevelopment of the former armory in South Portland.

An architecural rendering of what the newly redeveloped armory would look like.

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