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The Pamola Motor Lodge has been a fixture on Millinocket’s Central Street for decades, one of three motels that line the road into town.
The 24-room, two-story mid-century motel has been a mainstay for snowmobilers and Baxter State Park campers for years, but, like much in Millinocket these days, it’s approaching the future with a different outlook.
“There’s a great vibe [in the area] if you don’t want to put blinders on,” said Chris Carr, who bought the Pamola with his wife, Katie, in December 2016. “That’s why I got involved. There’s something more around here than high-paying jobs with the paper mill.”
The big part of the Millinocket story is that those high-paying jobs went away when the mill closed in 2008, and the mill in neighboring East Millinocket followed in 2011.
Carr and his wife are both Millinocket natives, and after working nearly 19 years for the railroad, most recently for the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, he’d had enough traveling and wanted to be home with his young family.
“I could be in Montreal one day, Searsport the next,” he said.
While he was wondering what his next step would be, the opportunity to buy the Pamola came up.
The $575,000 sale was brokered by Millinocket native Bruce Bragdon of Bangor’s ERA Dawson Bradford Co. Realtors.
Carr hadn’t working in the hospitality industry before, but he’d been a whitewater rafting guide and was familiar with tourism, and had worked in management for the past several years and felt he had a good feel for managing and working with people.
He also had some ideas about what he could do with the motel to become part of the region’s new economic focus.
“I didn’t know what to expect, as far as numbers go, but I think I’m personable, and I can relate to why [visitors] are here,” he said. “My goal is to make more of the four seasons.”
Carr is doing some of the work, like interior painting, himself, and getting help from friends.
He got some support with a $10,000 grant from the Katahdin Area Recovery and Expansion Committee, which was set up to administer an annual $75,000 payment to the town from Brookfield Renewable Energy as part of the deal when the mill closed.
The biggest Pamola projects are upgrading the Highland Tavern bar, removing the adjacent out-of-date and unused solarium to create event space and building a campground in the woods behind the motel, which is on a seven-acre lot.
Carr has also collaborated with Maine Rafting Expeditions, which now does business from the property.
The Highland Tavern has new reclaimed-timber paneling and tables from Maine Heritage Timber. Carr added pool tables to what was already there, and plans to open an entrance into the solarium area, creating an event room, which is a needed element in town. It will also serve as the motel’s breakfast room, and offer wifi, comfortable chairs and place to relax.
The solarium renovation is well underway, with new sheet rock and a ceiling.
The campground will be completed in two phases, with eight camping sites opening this year and eight more added later. He’s started converting a vacant building behind the motel into a shower room.
There will also be smaller changes, like an expanded laundry room for the motel, as well as coin-operated laundry for guests, moving the vending room, and other upgrades.
Carr said the motel is busy from May to October, when Baxter State Park is open, and again January through March, as long as there’s snow for the snowmobilers.
He wants to fill in the gaps, finding ways to attract hunters in November, for instance, and others.
While he already has the Baxter crowd, particularly Appalachian Trail hikers, he still wants to make the motel a destination for them and the families who come to see them off, or meet them when they finish.
He plans to reserve some of the campsite for those hiking the AT and offer other special deals.
When they come off the trail,”Really what they want is internet and a cold beer,” he said.
The new pool tables have attracted more teams for the area’s pool league, which has become a big part of the tavern’s business.
While Carr is looking for ways to attract more four-season travelers to the motel, he said it’s also important to attract local people, and the added pool tables have drawn new teams to the local pool league.
Since Millinocket’s downtown is about a mile and a half away from the motel, he also started a taxi service, the Pamola Shuttle. It’s the only one in town.
Carr took a trip with some others from the region to Lake Placid, N.Y., to see how the Adirondacks town repurposed itself after the 1980 Winter Olympics.
“They had a great blueprint,” he said.
While a lot of what’s going in with Millinocket’s redevelopment focuses on downtown, Carr knows, too, the efforts ripple and what he’s doing at the Pamola will also have an affect.
“If we want travelers to stop here, we want them to enjoy every bit of it,” he said.
One big boost since 2015 has been the town’s early December marathon. Runners don’t pay a fee, but are asked to spend as much in the region as they would normally pay to register.
Carr partnered with Bragdon Bus Service for a shuttle on marathon weekend.
“A phrase I’ve heard so much is, ‘If you’ve got something to say, get involved,’ so I did,” he said.
The marathon started small three years ago, with 52 runners. This year, it had more than 1,100.
The motel was built in the 1950s — the restaurant, which is now leased out — was an ice cream stand back then.
Carr’s Pamola project is coming along in phases, piece by piece, since he bought the motel 14 months ago. His progress is slow, but steady.
“I’m on the right track.”
And business in those slow seasons is already picking up a little — he’s fully booked for next year’s marathon.