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April 25, 2018

Libra Foundation's Monson development on track for first artists

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The transformation of Monson's downtown has been spurred by investment by the Libra Foundation.

MONSON — The town of about 650 will be getting its first artists-in-residence as part of the Libra Foundation's ambitious Piscataquis County project this summer.

Monson had been losing residents and businesses for years when, a year ago, the foundation began buying buildings in a $10 million effort to build an arts community and shore up the region's economy.

A year and a half after Libra began talking to residents about the project, the country store is open for the first time in six years and the once-vacant elementary school has been renovated into a community center and what will be the hub of the arts program.

This summer, the first 10 artists in the pilot artists-in-residence program will come to town, living in newly renovated houses.

"We're right on track," Jere Michelson, Libra Foundation president and chief operating officer, told Mainebiz.

The foundation has bought and renovated — or in some cases, torn down — 30 properties in the town on Route 6, 15 miles south of Greenville and Moosehead Lake.

"We've made considerable progress on the residential side of the construction and renovation, said Erik Hayward, senior vice president of the Libra Foundation.

The foundation also bought a 79-acre farm on the outskirts of down, which will soon produce hay. Once the long-fallow 50 acres of fields are rejuvenated, other products will be grown.

The goal of the project is to not only create a lively artist community, but to get those driving through on their way to Greenville and the Mooshead Lake region to stop, Michelson said.

The plan also includes shoring up recreation and agriculture in the region.

Libra is also building a $5 million ice arena in Dover-Foxcroft, about 20 miles east, part of the same focus, Michelson said.

He said groundbreaking on the site of a closed auto dealership on West Main Street is expected to be in June.

The arena will include an 80-foot-by-200-foot ice rink, four locker rooms, a pro shop, administrative space, approximately 250 second-story spectator seats and a concession area on property adjacent to Foxcroft Academy

When the Piscataquis project was first launched, Libra Chairman and CEO Craig Danekas said Libra has already employed the two-pronged strategy in Aroostook County, where it invested more than $30 million in the Maine Winter Sports Center to create outdoor recreation and economic opportunities for hosting international nordic skiing events, as well as investments in the Pineland Farms Potato Co. in Mars Hill (sold to Bob Evans Farms Inc. in 2017, which was itself acquired in January by Post Holdings Inc., a consumer packaged goods holding company) and the Pineland Farms Natural Meats feedlot in Fort Fairfield.

"It became clear to us that we could try to do in Piscataquis County what we did in Aroostook," Denekas said last year.

Old buildings, new life

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Monson's former elementary school is now a community and arts center.

Once known for its furniture-making and slate quarries — Monson slate was used at the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington, Va. — the town had become a drive-through on the way to Greenville and the Moosehead Lake region.

The village center, made of of clapboard buildings, is on the shore of Hebron Lake, with mountain views, but the eye-catching scenery was a backdrop to empty houses and stores. The foundation had to tear down several buildings.

"Some were just too far gone," said Hayward.

But others just needed some attention.

The 100-year-old store, for instance, vacant since 2012, had good bones and a solid Monson slate roof.

Other town amenities lacked the resources to grow.

The town's library, for example, is moving out of the cramped Town Office and into the new arts and community center.

"And there were businesses in downtown Monson that were [already] doing just fine," Hayward said.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have long stopped at the Lakeshore House and Shaw's Hiker Hostel, and spent money in town.

Lakeshore House now sports a sign thanking the Libra Foundation.

Appalachian Trail way station

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
One of Monson's traditional draws is the Appalachian Trail. This campground is near the trailhead on Pleasant Street.

Besides slate quarries, the town's other legacy is that it's on the 2,190-mile trail, the last stop before the 100-Mile Wilderness for northbound hikers, and the first civilization after for southbound.

The foundation is working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the length of the trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the summit of Katahdin.

Last year, the conservancy moved its Monson visitor center from the arts center to Main Street, and visits have increased 80%, Michelson said.

He said the center isn't just for those thru-hiking the trail — the trailhead is about 1.5 miles outside the town center — but also for day-hikers and tourists.

"There are about 30 waterfalls in the area, but there are no signs, no one knows where they are," he said. The conservancy helps hook visitors up with surrounding natural resources that may otherwise go unnoticed.

The Appalachian Mountain Club is another "big player" in the economy as well, Michelson said. The club has built more than 80 miles of trail, three renovated lodges and 70,000 acres of conservation land in the 100-Mile Wilderness on reclaimed timber company land.

Town Manager Dan Swain said the Libra effort has also helped put some fire under the town's effort to buy 1,200 acres of forestland for a town recreational area. The property is for sale by timber company Weyerhaeuser.

"We're trying to work with some nonprofits in paying for it," Swain said. Those behind the effort envision trails, tent platforms, both for area residents or those who are visiting to hike the AT or to check out the region's natural beauty.'

'People see the potential'

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Construction activity can be seen all over Monson, including these Main Street buildngs.

Other boosts have come as well.

In February, Premium Choice Broadband announced it was near completion on a $1 million project to connect Dover-Foxcroft and Monson with high-speed fiber optic cable.

Michelson and Hayward pointed out that alone is a huge economic boost, making it more possible for businesses to operate and making the area more appealing to potential residents.

They said that aside from the obvious economic benefits to Piscataquis County, they hope others learn from the effort and use what they've learned for other projects in the state.

Swain, the town manager, said the changes brought by Libra are welcome, and they're already having a positive impact beyond what the foundation planned.

"A lot of people are happy with it," he said. "It's an infusion of money in a place where we needed it."

Swain agrees with Michelson and Hayward that the town was a drive-through for many headed to the Moosehead Lake region. Despite the fact the project is still not completed, now people stop, and some are even putting down roots.

"People see the potential now," Swain said. "We get calls from around the country. We're seeing more properties sell.

"To have this money come in is just so big. And it'll bring more. The more money that flows through town, the more people it brings, the more jobs for local people."

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