By Leslie H. Dixon
NORWAY — Pigeon droppings cover the wooden floor boards. Sunlight filters through the plywood coverings of the two upper floors. The large glass and wooden front doors of three-story, brick building are locked.
The historic Odd Fellows Hall is a noncontributing asset to the Downtown Norway Historic District and its economic resurgence.
Town officials and others interested in revitalizing downtown Main Street say their efforts are stymied by the lack of communication from the rarely-seen owner of the historic Odd Fellows Hall.
“The committee continues to be frustrated by the lack of communication with the owner, and because it is a key property and now creates a chasm between upper and lower Main Street,” Andrea Burns, chair of the Economic Growth and Support Committee and president of Norway Downtown.
The historic, unoccupied Odd Fellows Hall, at 380 Main St., sits next to the Norway Opera House – the anchor of the Downtown Norway Historic District – and The Crane Block, an unoccupied 19th century professional building.
With the resurgence of the Norway Opera House’s first floor retail space, the vacancy of the three-story brick building and other nearby buildings, has created a gap in the town’s attempt to create a cohesive downtown shopping neighborhood.
Now, even three years after the ownership of the Odd Fellows Hall turned over again, no one seems to know what its current owner will do with it.
Perhaps not even owner, Sam Patel.
“I don’t know. When I decide what the plan is I’ll let you know,” Patel told the Advertiser Democrat in a brief telephone statement late last week when asked what his plans were. The words mimicked his response to the same question three years ago when he purchased the historic downtown commercial building.
The problem, local officials and residents say, is as long as the building sits vacant, efforts to re-energize the downtown economy through reuse of its historic buildings remains problematic.
Patel, a retailer in southern Maine who locally owns Sam’s Smoke & Novelties in Windham and a similar retail store at Five Corners on Route 26 in Poland, bought the shell of a building under the business name of Jasim LLC in December 2012 from TD Bank.
Within a year, holes appeared in its upper two-floor windows that remained that way for months, putting a damper on revitalization efforts in the adjacent buildings, including the Norway Opera House, and posing a hazard to pedestrians.
Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman threatened to take Patel to court at the time after sending three letters and emails to him that went unheeded. She was about to declare it a nuisance and dangerous building – a prosecutable crime – when Patel finally boarded the windows.
But the damage was already done. The continuing attacks by pigeons, which broke through the windows, deposited mounds of droppings on the wooden floors.
Maine Preservation placed the building on its 16th Maine’s Most Endangered Historic Places List in 2013.
While the owner has paid his taxes – a total of $6,489.86 over the last three years, according to Deputy Tax Collector and Town Clerk Shirley Boyce – town officials and others say they have had little to do with Patel – by his choice, not theirs.
Officials and residents pushed hard to see the downtown Main Street revitalized and great strides have been made toward that goal, but setbacks, such as downtown building vacancies, has sometimes meant one step forward and two steps back.
Revitalization of the Odd Fellows Hall has not been an easy task after a century of ownership by the Trustees of Norway Lodge Number 16. Its dwindling membership agreed to sell the building to the Western Maine Development for $60,000 in 2001.
The Norway Lodge brought the lot after the Great Fire of 1894 and built the current brick building in two stages as money allowed – the first floor in 1894 and the two top floors in 1911.
For many years it was a bustling hub of activity including retail stores, the district court, a jail and other businesses.
By 2001, the Norway Lodge was down to 46 members, its building empty except for the Little Jungle Pet Store remained in the 2,000-square-foot, first-floor commercial space.
Western Maine Development, the real estate arm of Enterprise Maine – a group of the community-based, nonprofit organziations dedicated to creating economic opportunity in western Maine – agreed to let the pet store stay on a month-to-month basis.
Western Maine Development had planned to install an elevator to replace the chairlift and stairs on one side of the building. The business intended to keep the bottom floor as retail and use the top two for professional offices.
The Growth Council of Oxford Hills, which bought the building in 2002, abandoned its plans by 2006 to refurbish and fill the building with tenants. It had a $500,000 loan in hand and had invested another $135,000 to prep it by removing hazardous wiring and other things, but felt it needed another $1.5 million to complete the job. Instead the council gave up and put the building on the market.
By December 2006, a potential buyer had appeared but backed out. Two years later another potential sale fell through and town officials were looking at how they could save three historic downtown properties, including the Odd Fellows Hall, the Norway Opera House and the Gingerbread House. The town agreed to redo the roof to stave off structural problems.
Local businessman John Miller attempted to purchase the building from TD Bank, which bought the building at a foreclosure auction for $89,000 in March 2011 after Miller’s high bid of $30,000 was rejected. Miller was apparently in the process of purchasing it from the bank and told a local newspaper that he planned to renovate the building and reopen it with businesses. But six months later, the deal had failed to materialize, Miller said in part due to title issues.
In 2008, Dawn and Harvey Solomon of New Horizons Capital Investment, purchased the property in July for $63,500. Harvey Solomon told town officials they planned to renovate the building and reopen storefronts on the first floor.
Although the couple secured the back wall and cleared the interior of debris, renovation stopped unexpectedly in 2010 just before Dawn Solomon was arrested and charged with bilking the state’s MaineCare system out of more than $4 million. Dawn Solomon remains in probation in Florida and Harvey Solomon, who wasn’t charged, left the state of Maine.
Time stood still again for the three-story brick building as TD Bank, who held the mortgage took ownership of the building.
The bank attempted to sell the structure but little interest was shown. By May 2012, Michael Jacobsen of King Real Estate said only three or four people had shown interest in it. Jacobsen said at the time that he believed the declining economy and the cost to renovate are major reasons it had not sold.
A study of the Odd Fellows Hall by Resurgence Engineering and Preservation Inc. of Portland several years ago indicated it would take more than $800,000 to fully renovate the building.
Five months later, another buyer surfaced but because no engineering plans or building permits could be found for it, and that deal fell through. The potential buyer had planned to develop it into residential and retail spaces.
Patel buys building
Finally Patel reached an agreement with TD Bank to purchase the building.
Corey Whitman said she has had no communication with Patel and no issues with the building since the windows were boarded up.
Burns said she and the committee – whose mission is to is to strengthen the local communities existing economic assets while diversifying its economic base and achieving success through creative reuse of historic properties – has had little communication with Patel.
Barbara Deschenes of The Maine Real Estate Network said she has been allowed to show the building to prospective buyers several times but she has never met the owner and has no idea if he really wants to sell it.
Some say they have seen Patel go in and out of the building on occasion, but local officials and residents interested in sparking the economic redevelopment of downtown say they are disappointed in the inability to get something going on the building.
Much progress has been made downtown with the resurgence of the Norway Opera House, which sits next to Odd Fellows Hall, but Burns said there is still uncertainty with the continuing lack of action on Odd Fellows Hall and the closing of the Longley Hardware Store last week. She added the vacant Crane Block on the other side of Odd Fellows Hall and other sites create economic gaps in the historic district.
For now, the building continues to sit vacant.