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Three downtown Millinocket houses have been bought by the Northern Forest Center and another one is under contract in an initiative aimed at closing the gap between the town’s evolving revitalization and those who would like to live there.
The New Hampshire-based Northern Forest Center is involved in dozens of programs designed to create jobs and leverage development in northern New England and New York, but the Millinocket Housing Initiative is a first, said Mike Wilson, a senior program director.
“We’re learning as we go,” he said Thursday.
The organization hopes to raise $1 million to buy and renovate 10 houses over the course of the program, which began in May and is expected to last up to seven years. The homes would be rented for 36 months, then sold, recouping the investment. The center has already raised $450,000, it said in a news release this week.
The first three houses, on Central Street, Penobscot Avenue and Aroostook Avenue, were bought in the last few months and a fourth is under contract.
While revitalization in the town and surrounding region has gained traction, there’s a gap that has to be filled. “There are very limited options for housing in the downtown, walkable core,” Wilson said.
Job losses that began when the Great Northern Paper mill closed in 2008 had a ripple effect on the economy, as well as the housing, and the vacancy rate is 17%, with many of the houses in disrepair or abandoned.
Lack of quality housing is cited by employers who hope to attract professionals, particularly at Millinocket Regional Hospital, the town’s biggest employer, with a staff of 250. But it’s also cited by smaller businesses, and the blossoming recreational tourism industry, whose seasonal workers have trouble finding rental units.
Wilson said one of the keys to recovery is attracting and retaining the 25- to 49-year-old age group.
The focus of the program is on downtown, including the hospital, elementary school and the former mill site, which was bought by nonprofit group Our Katahdin at the beginning of the year. In June, Our Katahdin and the town agreed to a three-year collaboration on developing the property, which would include a variety of businesses.
Wilson said availability of quality housing downtown means residents can walk to their jobs at the hospital or new ones at the mill site, be part of the neighborhood, and add to downtown’s economy. The organization also hopes the renovated homes will spur similar private investment.
Another reason downtown is targeted is that the project has to be visible to have some impact. “If it’s scattered around town, it’s not going to be noticed,” he said.
The center in its news release said it is already getting inquiries about rentals.
The organization has already been involved in the region, with Maine Woods Destination tourism program facilitation and coordination; grants to businesses for destination tourism development; technical assistance to home and business owners transitioning to local renewable heat; technical assistance of innovation services to wood products manufacturers; investment in Penobscot Avenue wi-fi; and facilitation of New Markets tax credits for downtown revitalization and mill site redevelopment.
The housing program is one of several major downtown projects underway. In June, Our Katahdin was awarded a $200,000 brownfield grant to help clean up the 10,000-square-foot Miller’s department store building on Penobscot Avenue, which has been empty since 2008.
Several new businesses have opened on Penobscot Avenue in the past year, and Katahdin Valley Health is constructing a new building next to its old offices on Aroostook Avenue.
Thursday night a second informational meeting was held on the most recent downtown project, a park on the lot bordered by Central Street and Penobscot and Aroostook avenues, occupied by the Magic City Mini Golf building. Preliminary design plans show seating that blends into natural elements, a walking map of the region, interpretive panels and a smokestack sculpture. The project is funded by a grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.
Developer Katahdin Tourism Partnership said the park would be the “heart” of downtown and open up sightlines to Penobscot Avenue.
Maggie Drummond-Bahl, a senior program officer of the Maine Community Foundation, said the private investment aspect is an important part of the program.
"If you look online at Zillow or other real estate sites you might see available/affordable homes for sale and wonder why it’s important to invest in increasing that supply," she says. "But, the initiative is taking a whole neighborhood approach to the problem. Some homes won’t sell if they are surrounded by other derelict or vacant properties. With a whole neighborhood approach, though, you improve not only the supply but you also make the whole neighborhood more attractive for prospective renters and buyers and existing homeowners. And the Northern Forest Center has strategically identified ‘gateway’ properties and neighborhoods that through their improvement will also bring up values in connecting areas."