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The Portland waterfront's oldest wharf, operated by the same family for over 160 years, has gone on the real estate market for the first time.
Union Wharf was built in 1793 at the foot of Union Street. The seller's family has been associated with the wharf since 1858, according to marketing materials from NAI The Dunham Group, which opened a call for offers this week.
Fifth-generation descendants Charlie and Malcolm Poole are serving as its proprietors today.
The property has already received plenty of interest, Chris Craig, the broker handling the listing, told Mainebiz.
“I’ve been very busy since Tuesday,” he said.
Within the first 24 hours, he had sent out 22 property packages and had received requests for another six confidentiality agreements. About three-quarters of the queries have so far come from potential Maine investors and the rest from around the country. The property went on the real estate listing website LoopNet yesterday and Craig expected interest to increase.
Bids will be accepted until March 31, he added.
A call for offers is a sales mechanism that has become more common in recent years. Prospective buyers submit offers rather than responding to a set price. It allows sellers to review multiple offers by a given deadline.
The wharf has seen quite a bit of history. Created when the nation was only a decade old, it’s weathered a civil war and two world wars. Tall clipper ships, coal-fired steamers and diesel-powered vessels have visited its docks. Horse-drawn carts, horseless carriages, locomotives and front-end loaders have carried goods to and from its buildings.
According to mainememory.net, the wharf is one of the oldest structures in Portland.
“Throughout its history it has been through a fire that almost destroyed the whole city, a sea battle that killed two captains, and the threat of German U-boats,” the website says.
In the 18th century, a group of 25 men agreed to build the wharf to bring stores and businesses to the waterfront. The constructors named themselves “Proprietors of Union Wharf.” They relied on horse wagons to move rocks, dirt and other materials, and used more than 3,500 tons of lumber for the wharf.
“Portland Harbor was a busy place in the late 1700s,” the website says. “For example, in 1793 23 schooners, 20 sloops and 13 ships docked in the port that year.”
The website continues, “In 1797, writer Timothy Dwight wrote that ‘no American town was more commercial or sprightly than Portland.’ Business grew in Portland as did Union Wharf as the nation went into the nineteenth century. Portland became America’s sixth largest seaport in 1806.”
The property is being offered for sale for the first time in its history.
Under the seller’s stewardship, the property has served the needs of the working waterfront community with a diverse mix of warehouse, storage, dockage and berthing, office, retail, restaurant and parking spaces. Tenants have a history of long-term leases.
All of the buildings have been updated or rebuilt since the 1980s. Pier components were significantly updated in 2017 with a $1.8 million investment that rebuilt 200 linear feet of the southwest corner.
The property is mostly constructed of earth filling with a stone cribbing base. It sits on 4.3 acres that comprises 3.3 upland acres and one acre of submerged land that provides access to dockage and berthing space.
The wharf contains 12 primary buildings totaling 61,872 square feet of net rentable space. It has 1,514 linear feet of berthing/dockage space and 55,981 square feet of pier space.
An additional 19,230 square feet of submerged land is currently leased from the state of Maine through 2034; that land abuts the wharf and consists of additional berthing and float space.
The property has 273 feet of frontage on Commercial Street and it is situated at the center of Portland’s Old Port tourist area.
The net operating income for 2019 was approximately $1.15 million.
Rebuilds since the 1980s converted old wooden buildings to metal, with enough elevation to withstand rising sea levels, said Craig. Most have metal roofs to withstand waterfront conditions.
“The wharf is in phenomenal shape,” he said. “It’s really well kept.”
The wharf is being sold because no one in the family is interested in taking over proprietorship, he explained.
“It’s a big deal to be the proprietors of Union Wharf,” he said.
The wharf’s primary uses are marine-related, he said. That includes fishermen tying up at the berths and retail establishments that include seafood and bait companies, a chandlery and Marine Spill Response Corp., with a mix of small office users such as financial firms, architects and real estate brokerage. An oil-spill-cleanup vessel has a berth there.
On the Commercial Street end, a catering company called Black Tie occupies one building and Sapporo Restaurant occupies another, with office tenants in the upper stories.
Terms of the sale include honoring the leases, he added.
The call for offers doesn’t specify a minimum purchase price, Craig said.
The owners approached the Dunham Group about two months ago but had been thinking about a sale for a long time, he added.
It was decided to market the property as a call for offers rather than a conventional listing with a set price because of the significance of the property, he said.
“We all discussed it and we said, Let’s let the market figure out what someone could spend on it,” he said. “I expect to get a lot of strong offers.”
Interest came through word-of-mouth even before the listing became public, he added.
“As far as investment properties, this is a really good one because there’s always a need for this type of space, and there’s not a lot of it around,” he said. “And it’s in really good shape, so you don’t have to sink a bunch of money into it.”
The working wharf has a sense of culture that the sellers hope will be maintained, he said.
“I think they’re looking for someone who will be a good stewards,” Craig said. “They can say, ‘This person will be paying more money but these people will be a better replacement for us and a better steward for the whole wharf.’”
He added, “It’s not a redevelopment parcel. The property sells on its own existing use. Based on its zoning, it needs to remain the way it is, which is primarily marine-related.”
The current owners and the tenants have excellent relationships, he noted.
“Their tenants really like them,” he said. “That’s why the place is always full. It’s not like an office building where you hire a management company that makes sure the light bulbs are replaced. There’s a lot of activity on this wharf and there are a lot of things the proprietor needs to know about.”
The smaller, nearby Berlin Mills Wharf sold in 2019 for $4 million. Craig, Tom Moulton and Katie Millett from NAI The Dunham Group brokered that sale.