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Updated: January 24, 2022 Focus on Southern Maine

SoPo’s mojo: Retail development takes off in South Portland

Lucas Myers behind the fish counter at SoPo Seafood. Display shows different kinds of fish and shellfish. Photo / Tim Greenway Lucas Myers is co-founder and operations director of SoPo Seafood, a seafood market and raw bar at 171 Ocean St. in South Portland.
Oysters on display on ice Photo / Tim Greenway SoPo Seafood obtains oysters from a handful of Maine suppliers. The company has a wholesale and delivery operation based in Biddeford opened at the start of the pandemic, and a retail spot in South Portland that opened in 2021.
William Mann standing on a South Portland street. Photo / Tim Greenway William Mann, South Portland’s economic development director, says the city is seeing a lot of turnover in commercial spaces.
Barbara Konsin in her home decor store, in front of the window Photo / Tim Greenway Barbara Konsin is the owner of Nestled, a vintage home décor and curiosities store at 382 Cottage Road in South Portland.

They were selling oysters and found an Ocean Street pearl. 

Lucas Myers, Matt Brown and Joshua Edgcomb founded SoPo Seafood in Biddeford in March 2020 doing delivery and wholesale, then branched out into retail but only after finding the ideal location in South Portland.

“This perfect stamp right here was South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, all being funneled to go over this bridge in Portland, making this the perfect spot for retail seafood,” Myers says. Seated inside the bright space one afternoon as customers indulge in Maine oysters and craft beer, he says, “This is the place.”

From walkable waterfront neighborhoods like Ocean Street and Cottage Road to the Maine Mall area’s suburban sprawl, South Portland is seeing a surge in retail-led commercial development that gathered pace during the pandemic. Momentum is expected to stay strong as buyers pounce on spaces as soon as they become available.

New businesses — and employers — include growing startups like SoPo Seafood and Soul Food Paradise, which in October graduated from Portland’s Fork Food Lab to a space at the Maine Mall Food Court. Owners are also spending money on façade revamps in places including Shaw’s Millcreek Plaza, a grocery store-anchored strip center across the street from the Mill Creek Shopping Center.

Tight inventory

But malls and shopping centers aren’t for everyone, and a Jan. 4 inventory by the Portland-based Dunham Group lists only 30 available South Portland commercial properties in Maine’s fourth-largest city, including a space at Shaw’s Millcreek Plaza and at 740 Broadway near Willows Pizza & Restaurant. “Other than that,” notes associate broker Sam LeGeyt, “things are full.”

Other evidence of a tight market comes from William Mann, South Portland’s economic development director, who characterizes the area east of the Casco Bay Bridge and the Maine Mall area as two unique downtowns with significant population bases. Mann says that both commercial and residential development in 2021 were up from 2020, supported by early indications of higher revenues for permit and related fees.

As for available spaces for businesses, “we’re seeing relatively low vacancy in commercial property, and it’s been a challenging time for businesses,” Mann says. “We’ve lost some during the pandemic, but we’re also seeing a lot of turnover.” To ensure that continues, “we approach every opportunity with an open mind and a clean pad of paper” and seek feedback after each ribbon-cutting, he says, noting: “I’m a big fan of ‘What could we have done better?’” 

As South Portland seeks to become a better place to live and work, it plans to develop a community-wide open-access broadband network that Mann predicts will be a “game changer.” Expected benefits include greater career mobility and higher home values in the city, whose population grew by 1,000 between 2019 and 2020 to 26,500 or about double the increase between 2000 and 2010. That’s boosting demand for all real estate, including retail spaces.

William Mann standing on a South Portland street.
Photo / Tim Greenway
William Mann, South Portland’s economic development director, says the city is seeing a lot of turnover in commercial spaces.

​Affordability and commercial diversity

South Portland is attractive for retail for several reasons, including more affordable lease rates in areas such as Knightville and Mill Creek than just across the bridge on Commercial Street or Portland’s Old Port, according to Dunham Group’s LeGeyt. 

Taking a wider view of South Portland’s retail and medical office markets he deems to be “very healthy,” Mark Malone of Malone Commercial Brokers in Portland says: “South Portland is firing on all cylinders right now.” 

But he and others point to other factors as well. “Outside of Portland, no Maine municipality is as commercially diverse as South Portland,” says Justin Lamontagne, a partner and designated broker at the Dunham Group. “The city has neighborhood charm in Mill Creek, Class-A office space next to major retailers in the mall area, several significant residential apartment complexes, a working waterfront and a thriving industrial park.” 

Giving a lot of credit to the city itself, he says, “officials have always thought reasonably about commercial impact, and I think the business community has reciprocated by seeking to relocate and build there. I’m very bullish on South Portland’s future from a commercial real estate standpoint.”

Curtis Picard, president of the Augusta-based Retail Association of Maine, has a similar view.

“I think the Mill Creek area has always been a great location for people who live in SoPo or Cape but work in Portland,” offering local as well as chain retail options, he says.

“For the Maine Mall area, and even the Maine Mall itself,” he says, “you’ve seen continued popularity of the largest retail section in the state. The Mall has continued to be competitive with the addition of Jordan’s, Round1 [Bowling & Amusement] and continued strength of the Best Buy and Apple stores.” 

Noting that all of Greater Portland is a draw for retail, he says the recent addition of the Rock Row mixed-use development in Westbrook around 5 miles from South Portland “has enabled retailers to further explore the whole area.”

That includes even newcomers to the Maine Mall, at a time when malls across the nation are hurting as consumers increasingly shop via the internet, strip-center chains and outlets. Jordan’s Furniture, of East Taunton, Mass., for example, opened a 120,000-square-foot store in July 2020 in the space previously occupied by a Bon-Ton department store. 

Less than two miles away, at 198 Maine Mall Road, the 118,000-square-foot-plus Mallside Plaza shopping center recently sold for $20 million after less than four months on the market, to Wood Hill Realty Associates LLC, whose plans include a parking lot renovation the property had been listed for $21 million.

Malone, who handled leases at the facility for several years for NEGC Mallside BH LLC and brokered the sale on its behalf, said interest was strong.

“We had three competing offers for the property and chose the buyer we felt was best-equipped,” he says. “I had 90 days to sell the property, and about a week or 10 days prior to expiration of my agreement, I was able to find a good buyer that satisfied the seller. The pressure was on.”

Other commercial momentum

SoPo’s commercial development boom goes well beyond retail, with companies in various sectors investing in property and creating new jobs.

Examples include Horch Roofing’s expansion into southern Maine from Warren, via the $2 million purchase of an industrial building in South Portland, and PK Realty Management’s plans to develop 30 waterfront acres in a former shipyard next to Bug Light Park purchased in 2018.

“We were looking for almost three years for a property anywhere between Freeport and South Portland and Scarborough, and South Portland was super attractive because of access to I-295,” says Peter Horch, president of Horch Roofing. He says the company has hired three people so far to staff its new South Portland office, “and I would love to hire upwards of 25 people this year,” but knows that will be challenging in today’s tight market.

Among companies in South Portland for longer is ReVision Energy, which moved to the city in early 2019 from two sites in Portland. It has grown from 90 full-time employees in South Portland to around 160 today, out of 329 total.

“When and if we return to full-time work in the office, we will definitely be considering an expansion of both parking and office space,” says Fortunat Mueller, president and co-founder of the employee-owned firm. He says that while he hopes that will be this spring, he had that same hope in 2021. And as PK Realty Management works out its development plan, principal Jennifer Packard says she prizes South Portland’s strong sense of community and “incredible and beautiful neighborhood cohesion.”

Evolving neighborhoods

Back on Ocean Street, SoPo Seafood is among several new food-related businesses turning that part of town into a new culinary corner. Others include Judy Gibson, Chris Wilcox’s upscale bistro in the former Teriyaki Exchange; Café Louis, serving Costa Rican and Caribbean fare in the former RJ’s Pub; Solo Cucina Market; and BenReuben’s Knishery, opened by Graeme Miller last May in a former hair salon.

“I had always been dreaming of opening up a place like this, but to find this type of Main Street-like drag through downtown,” says Miller. “It was just fantastic, and the biggest surprise of all has been how much of a community this area actually is.”

Restaurant-industry veteran Bill Seretta, executive director of Fork Food Lab, says he’s not surprised by the influx of food businesses to South Portland, noting that “if something works, others will follow.” Currently based in Portland’s West Bayside neighborhood, Fork Food Lab hopes to relocate to a South Portland site in coming months.

Barbara Konsin in her home decor store, in front of the window
Photo / Tim Greenway
Barbara Konsin is the owner of Nestled, a vintage home décor and curiosities store at 382 Cottage Road in South Portland.

Like Myers, Barbara Konsin feels equally welcome at Nestled, a home décor store she opened on Cottage Road last April, selling vintage and upcycled furniture and curiosities, in an 800-square-foot space owned by DiPietro’s Market across the street. She’s close to David’s 388, whose chef-owner David Turin doesn’t feel threatened by all the new eateries in town, saying, “I think there’s plenty of business to go around.” 

But Turin, who opened his first restaurant in 1983, has this advice for today’s aspiring restaurateurs:  “When you’re making a decision to open a restaurant, try not to make it an emotional decision … Do your homework before you start.”

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