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Rehab of 1840s building part of downtown Ellsworth's revitalization

BY Laurie Schreiber

8/20/2018
Courtesy / Cara Romano
Courtesy / Cara Romano
Cara Romano and her husband, local contractor David LaValle, purchased 6 State St., in downtown Ellsworth in April.

The renovation of 6 State St., in downtown Ellsworth by its new owners is designed to bring new ground-floor retail and upper-story residential activity to the area.
Cara Romano and her husband, local contractor David LaValle, purchased the building in April. After initial renovation, Romano moved her gallery, (KoT) Contemporary Functional Craft, to the building, opening her doors on July 17.
According to Romano’s news release, she and LaValle created a bright, airy showroom that serves as a backdrop for the work of craft artists working in a host of mediums from around the country. The space had formerly housed the Holmes Insurance Agency.
Romano, a past president of the Maine Crafts Association, launched the original gallery in 2014. Her objective was to gauge interest and support for a craft gallery in the downtown business sector of Ellsworth. For the past four years (KoT) was housed at 192 Main St., the original Masonic Hall of the Freemasons, where Romano leased space.
Locally known as the Maine Grind building because a popular coffeehouse by that name was once located on the first floor, 192 Main St., a Federal-style building built in 1934, was itself listed on the market in July at $1.1 million.

Romano said she named her shop in a nod to the history of the Freemason building in order to highlight that the store space had originally served as the building’s coat closet.
“A little creative thinking resulted in our logo and name is the phonetic pronunciation of the word c-o-a-t,” she wrote.
Romano told Mainebiz by phone that she is a metalsmith who grew up in Gouldsboro and went to the University of Maine at Machias, where she majored in interdisciplinary fine art.
After college, she lived in Cherryfield for five years, where she studied metalsmithing with a master metalsmith. Then she spent almost 15 years on the road around the country, traveling as far as Vancouver, B.C., and California to sell her work. Five years ago, she returned to Ellsworth to start (KoT).
Four years ago, she and LaValle began to search for a building to purchase in downtown Ellsworth.
“None were right or in our price range,” she said. Last October, they found 6 State St., and closed on it in April as a private, non-listed sale. They paid $225,000, with Shep Erhart, co-founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Hancock, and his daughter Seraphina Erhart as investors. The property extends in the back to the Union River.
The building previously housed the Holmes Insurance Agency, along with retail and residential occupants on the second and third floors. Now the couple continue to rent residential space on the upper floors. Romano has a metals studio on the second floor and rents studio space to other area artists.

The building, built in the 1840s, required renovation when they bought it. They started by exposing some of the original brickwork and hardwood floors and doing some painting. They intend to do a full restoration in the future.
“My husband is a contractor, so this is a project we’re able to do because of his knowledge and ability,” Romano said.
When Romano launched her gallery in 2014, she had 14 artists from Maine. Now she represents at least 70 from around the nation, including quite a few from Maine.
Ellsworth’s creative economy is growing, Romano said.
“A big part of that is how it’s evolved naturally,” she said. “As the economy gets better, we have a lot of artists who feel they want to get out of their home studios, maybe open their door and teach a workshop and have studio sales. So we have a lot of artists who are starting to populate the downtown’s second stories or side streets, or are renting space from other artists who have buildings like I do.”
The downtown in general is evolving as a vibrant spot, she said. Newer businesses include the restaurant 86 this!; Heidi Stanton-Drew’s Artful Aide, which serves artists and arts organizations; Elizabeth’s, a boutique at the former long-time location of the Grasshopper Shop; Fogtown Brewing Co.; Sage Moon Apothecary; a candy store called Sugar Mags; The Pop Co., which makes bags for pet items and personal supplies; Melissa’s Maine Made; Airline Brewing Co.; Northern Lights Dance studio; Nisa Jewelry Studio; Mother’s Mud Clay Studio; Alchemist Salon, a hair salon; and Serendib, an Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant.
“There are a lot of exciting things happening here,” she said.

Romano is also executive director of Heart of Ellsworth, which until three years ago was formerly the Downtown Ellsworth Association. She was hired as executive director in 2015 and oversaw the organization’s transition from a 501(c)(6) business association dependent on member revenue to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit able to accept contributions and grants.
“We received our IRS determination last July, so we’ve been busy writing grants and raising money to bolster our organization,” she said.
Heart of Ellsworth is “leading with the creative economy,” she said. “We’re trying to uncover artists in Ellsworth who have studios downtown but don’t have a shingle out.”
Heart of Ellsworth initiatives include the upcoming “Art of Ellsworth” event on Oct. 11-14 in conjunction with the Maine Crafts Association Maine Crafts Weekend, with guest speaker Abbe Levin from the Maine Office of Tourism.
The organization’s initiatives are aimed at revitalizing the downtown, creating events and in general promoting economic development in the downtown, she said. Examples of activities include a festival called Taste of Ellsworth.
“We just had our second year’s event this past June,” she said. “We grew that program this year by 86% over the first year.” For the event, the city shut down a side street. The event hosted 14 area eateries, a beer tent and bands.
“We sold out both years,” Romano said.
Other initiatives include “community conversations,” designed to involve community members and engages municipalities. Heart of Ellsworth chooses topics like a discussion scheduled for September about downtown living, with a panel discussion that will include the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
For that event, “Heart of Ellsworth will try to rally all of the building owners who have second-story vacancies, to try to get them to understand options for transforming spaces into living space,” she said. “We want to get second-story living happening downtown. We believe, as an organization, that will be the ultimate economic driver to the downtown being vibrant and active. Additionally it’s another answer to the region's housing shortage.”
(KoT) will host a “welcome” party open to the public Aug. 23, from 4-7 p.m.
For more information about (KoT), email Romano at cara@kotcontemporarycraft.com or visit www.kotcontemporarycraft.com/.