Ocean State Job Lot, which has a sublessee, Planet Fitness, is a relative newcomer to the Falmouth Shopping Center on Route 1. But it has been given an eviction notice from the Portland developers who bought the plaza in March for $21 million. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

A Rhode Island-based retail chain that invested $1.3 million in upgrades at a formerly vacant space in the Falmouth Shopping Center is fighting an eviction notice from the center’s new owners.

Ocean State Job Lot, which moved last October with Planet Fitness into the faltering Route 1 retail center, said it will fight the order. John Conforti, Ocean State Job Lot’s owner and chief financial officer, said the center’s new owners claim the 10-year lease is invalid because of a technicality in the exchange of documents.

“It is unfortunate that our welcome letter from the new owners was an eviction notice,” Conforti said Thursday. “We plan to vigorously defend ourselves against what is a very unnecessary attack from a new wealthy landlord.”

In March, Joseph Soley, the patriarch of a Portland real estate empire, and Jonathan Cohen bought the Falmouth Shopping Center, according to a mortgage filed with the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. The 200,000-square-foot strip mall, which has had vacant storefronts for years, sold for $21 million, according to NKF Capital Markets, the firm that orchestrated the sale.

On the mortgage, Soley is listed as the sole member of 122 PTIP LLC and Cohen is named the manager of 20 Thames Street LLC. The two companies each own half of the property, according to a deed signed on March 23.

Reached by phone Thursday, Cohen said the pending eviction was not newsworthy, and declined to comment further. He is president of Architectural Doors and Windows in Westbrook, and building a new headquarters for payment-processing company Wex Inc. on waterfront land he bought from Portland for $3.3 million in August 2017.

Soley couldn’t be reached for comment.

FELLOW MERCHANTS WELCOME RETAILER

The roughly 60-acre parcel in Falmouth includes the strip mall and about 20 acres of undeveloped land. Commercial real estate brokers called the parcel a “gold mine” primed for redevelopment. But Conforti thinks the arrival of Ocean State Job Lot is part of what made the center an attractive purchase for the new owners.

Clare Lygo, who owns the Book Review in the Falmouth Shopping Center, bought the bookstore after after the previous owner retired last year. She says Ocean State Job Lot has “brought energy to the shopping center.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The retailer’s arrival was welcomed by other tenants, who say the presence of the discount chain and the gym has helped boost foot traffic in the shopping center.

“They’ve brought energy to the shopping center,” said Clare Lygo, the owner of Book Review, a bookstore that she bought last year. “It just seems like there’s more life here.”

She said new owners Soley and Cohen sent her a thick envelope full of papers on the sale earlier this year, which she signed. Lygo said the major change to her agreement was where to send the rent checks. She said the other terms of the five-year lease she signed in May 2017, including the amount of the rent, were unchanged.

Lygo did note that none of the paperwork referred to renewing her lease when it expires in 2022.

Elizabeth Moss, who runs Elizabeth Moss Galleries in the shopping center, said she was surprised that the new owners were seeking to evict one of the center’s largest tenants.

Ocean State Job Lot Assistant Manager Joleen Meyer hangs up signs on displays Thursday at the store, where Meyer has worked for six months. The store moved into a space in the Falmouth Shopping Center in October and spent $1.3 million in upgrades and signed a 10-year lease. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“It’s been a very empty shopping mall,” said Moss, who has had her art gallery in the shopping center since 2004. “I’ve been waiting for something to pick up.”

Like Lygo, Moss said foot traffic in the shopping center has perked up since Ocean State and Planet Fitness opened last fall.

She’s also noticed that the commercial broker who handles the shopping center has been bringing around more prospective tenants to look at the remaining vacant space.

A call to Compass Commercial Brokers, the Portland company which handles leases in the shopping center, was not returned Thursday.

RENOVATIONS TO 50,000-SQUARE-FOOT SPACE

Donna Stevenson shops at Ocean State Job Lot on Thursday. Stevenson, who lives in South Portland, says she goes to Falmouth to shop at the store, “all the time.” She said, “They have great deals and there is a huge variety of stuff.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The space Ocean State Job Lot leased had been unoccupied since 2005. As a result, Conforti said his family-run company spent about $1.3 million to overhaul the roughly 50,000-square-foot space, bring it up to code, and subdivide the space and utilities to facilitate a sublet to Planet Fitness. Ocean State Job Lot occupies 36,000 square feet and Planet Fitness has the rest. The eviction notice does not target Planet Fitness.

Conforti said his company, which operates 131 stores across eight states, including seven in Maine, was blindsided by the eviction notice. The company had no plans to leave the strip mall, and had just signed a lease to run through 2028, with an option to renew in 2043.

“We negotiated our lease in good faith,” Conforti said. “I don’t know if they’re trying to evict us, or renegotiate the terms of our lease. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I want to do is be a good corporate citizen, a good employer, a good place for customers.”

The retailer has hired 30 people to work in the Falmouth store since it opened.

A court filing by 20 Thames Street LLC and 122 PTIP LLC dated May 7 calls for eviction of the Ocean State Job Lot because the retailer did not provide an estoppel certificate on a timely basis. An estoppel certificate details the relationship between a landlord and tenant that can then be shared with a third party, often a prospective buyer of the property.

Conforti says his company filed the appropriate certificate on April 26.

The case is scheduled for a hearing in Portland District Court on May 24.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected].

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