State Theatre in legal limbo

The State Theatre, a major music venue in the heart of Portland's Arts District. (photos/Chris Busby)

State Theatre in legal limbo 
Owner set to evict managing tenant

By Chris Busby

A long-term business relationship begun last summer that promised to revitalize the historic State Theatre in downtown Portland has unraveled in just nine months. Building owner Grant Wilson is set to evict the theater’s in-house management company, Maine Entertainment LLC, on March 1, citing several alleged lease violations — including failure to pay the venue’s $10,000 monthly rent. 

Wilson and his company, Stone Coast Properties, had owned and managed the 1,700-seat venue for a few years before Maine Entertainment took over its operations last June. (Wilson also previously owned a restaurant, brewery and music venue on York Street, called Stone Coast Brewing Company, and a pizza place on Forest Avenue that closed last year.) The new management company reportedly spent about $75,000 to clean up the Congress Street theater, which is over 75 years old, and had plans to embark on a $250,000 renovation project as late as last November. 

The current dispute has effectively put the booking of future shows there on hold indefinitely, potentially depriving Portland of one of its few major entertainment venues just as the busy summer concert season is being scheduled. There are only two shows scheduled there for this spring – comedian Brian Regan in late April, and rock band Saves the Day in early May – but it’s unclear where, or whether, even those shows will take place. 

Chris Morgan, the New Hampshire-based promoter who owns Maine Entertainment, said he is seeking legal advice and deferred comment until he had consulted with a lawyer.

Wilson also declined comment, but said he would alert The Bollard “when there’s an announcement” regarding the property.

In court documents, Stone Coast Properties alleges that Maine Entertainment was nearly a month late on its rent last November, and that its December rent check bounced. 

In letters to Morgan submitted to Cumberland County District Court, Stone Coast property manager Kelly Sawyer also says that Morgan removed seating in the lower section of the theater last November without properly notifying Stone Coast, and that the management company has failed to provide documentation proving it has insurance that covers the property on days when there are no shows. 

In early December, according to Sawyer, state fire inspectors cited the theater for exceeding its legal capacity. In another letter, Sawyer alleges that Central Maine Power shut off the theater’s electricity “on or about” Dec. 29 because Maine Entertainment failed to pay the bill. The management company is responsible for utility costs in addition to the $10,000-per-month rent, Sawyer noted. 

“There is another, very real side to the story,” Morgan said, but again, he declined to elaborate pending legal consultation. Court documents show no record of Morgan’s side of the story, and Michael Traister, a Portland attorney representing Stone Coast, said Morgan did not file any formal documents with the court in his defense.

At a Feb. 9 court hearing, both parties agreed that Stone Coast can take back possession of the building on March 1, and Traister said he believes Wilson intends to evict Maine Entertainment this Wednesday, as the judge has allowed.

Traister said he does not know how Wilson plans to proceed once that occurs. 

Last summer, Morgan entered into an arrangement with Tea Party Concerts, part of national entertainment giant Clear Channel Entertainment, by which Tea Party has exclusive rights to books acts at the State Theatre. Bookings have been relatively sparse in recent months, though this dispute has coincided with winter and the holiday season, when most venues are typically less active. 

Tea Party booking agent Lauren Wayne could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

Last fall, Morgan told the Portland Press Herald that he ultimately planned to make the theater available to the community at large for all manner of events in future years. “Three years from now, hopefully we’ll have a state-of-the-art theater,” he told entertainment reporter Bob Keyes in early November. 

“The goal is to fill the theater on a nightly basis,” Morgan continued. “We are willing to open our doors to any artist willing to play here…. Our goal is to become more of a community partner.”

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