WATERVILLE — The owners of a local car repair and towing business were in private negotiations today to buy the former John Martin’s Manor, a popular College Avenue restaurant that closed in 2007.

David and Mike Palmer of Ace Tire & Auto Service were the only registered bidders at an auction hosted this morning at the former restaurant by Keenan Auction Co., of South Portland.

Stefan Keenan and David Reed of Keenan mediated discussion in the parking lot between the Palmers and Don Barberino, who manages the property for Sportech, a London company with a U.S. base in New Haven, Conn.

Ace Tire, at nearby 4 Drummond Ave., recently opened a second location on College Avenue, next to the former manor building.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m., Keenan announced there was only one registered bidder at the auction, offers were made and the auction “effectively is canceled here today.”

“It’s under private negotiations as we speak,” he said.

Keenan said that because the matter was in private negotiations, he could not release information related to price. The Palmers also said they could not comment while negotiations were underway.

The total value of the Manor property, at 54 College Ave., is $331,900, according to city assessing records. The building was built in 1900, according to the records.

At 4:45 p.m., Keenan said a decision in the sale was not expected today, but he was optimistic it would occur Tuesday.

“We’re not going to know today,” he said. “We’re dealing with some overseas contacts.”

Former Manor owner Peter Martin walked through the building with his former employees before the auction. He grew up in the business with his father, John Martin.

“We were here from 1977 to 2005,” he said. “We had a lot of good years here.”

Martin — who also owned restaurants in Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Saugus, Mass., and Nashua, N.H. — built a $700,000 addition to the Waterville restaurant in 1998 that included an atrium on the south side and a food court buffet inside. Two houses on Maple Street were burned down to add more parking. He won the Mid-Maine chamber of Commerce’s Business of the Year Award in 1999.

Martin employed more than 70 people at the 30,000-square-foot eatery, which sat 300 people for dining, 400 for banquets and 200 in the lounge, he said.

“We probably did 500 to 600 weddings here in that time,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s a free standing restaurant in the state of Maine that’s 30,000 square feet. In this day and age, there are not a lot of facilities this large.”

The restaurant was popular and was known for its popovers, which are light, hollow rolls. “I still get comments about popovers,” Martin said.

In 2005, Martin sold the restaurant to Autotote Enterprises, of New Haven, Conn., which closed the restaurant in 2007 because it was losing money. But it continued to serve as a banquet center, catering special functions such as weekly meetings of the Waterville Rotary Club. In 2010, Sportech bought Autotote.

The off-track betting parlor in the basement of the building continued to operate there until last year, when it moved to what is now T&B Celebration Center on Jefferson Street. T&B is close to, and visible from, Interstate 95. It was the first off-track betting operation in the state when Martin developed it in the basement of the Manor.

After Martin left the Manor, he helped develop Oxford Casino and was a shareholder until the casino was sold this year. Martin owns Atlantic Strategies, a consulting company.

Amanda Proctor, 65, of Winslow, worked at John Martin’s Manor for 20 years, from 1978 to 1998. She saw the sign that the building was to be auctioned off today and decided to stop.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to go over and see what’s happening,’” Proctor said. “Memories — a lot of memories. This was the place to eat. Fabulous salad bar, great prime rib and popovers — everyone loved the popovers. (Martin) was by far the best boss I ever had. He and Bruce Harmon (general manager) were wonderful. We always were a team.”

Proctor, who is now an antiques dealer, said she went to work at the Olive Garden after leaving the Manor in 1998.

Gerry Butler, 49, of Waterville, lives in the neighborhood and stopped when she saw the auction sign, she said. She worked at the restaurant from 2001 to 2009.

“I started waitressing and I was a banquet coordinator several years and at the end, when the restaurant closed, I was the general manager,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see the building in the condition that it’s in. It was such a beautiful restaurant. I loved working here — loved, loved working here. I worked with Peter and Bruce Harmon and stayed on with Autotote.”

She came to the auction hoping somebody planned to open a restaurant there again.

“But I thought, after looking at it, that that would be a little far-fetched,” she said. “Going through there just brings back so many memories of what it was.”

Don Plourde, of Coldwell Banker/Plourde Real Estate, said he hopes the prominent building is bought and used.

“It’ll certainly be nice to see somebody do something with it,” Plourde said. “But it does need a lot of work.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
acalder@mainetoday.com