BROWNVILLE, Maine — They blew into their hometown in 2003 full of optimism, investing their life savings in a vision of marketing their community as a wholesome place to bring families.
With hard work and determination, John Belvin, 44, and Don Belvin, 38, along with their wives, Kristin, 43, and Coleen, 44, carved out that vision. They turned a vacant building on Route 11 into a general store and restaurant, created a campground where people can actually see the stars, constructed an outdoor amphitheater for bands that drew hundreds of people to a region hard-pressed for money, and they invested in a 14-by-20-foot screen to show movies.
In the five years since the families arrived, the economy took a nose dive and fuel costs jumped, resulting in less traffic, which together caused business at the Junction General Store and Entertainment Park to dwindle so much they now must sell the convenience store and restaurant, they said this week.
“We just landed at the wrong time,” John Belvin said Thursday. “We put our life savings in our dream and in order to keep it we need to go away and try to make money to pay for what we built.”
Their store is not the first to close in recent years nor will it be the last to close because of the poor economy, the Belvins said.
In fact, according to Winifred Malia of the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, 273 convenience stores closed in Maine in 2007. Those were stores that had employees and does not include the mom-and-pop stores whose owners operated without help, she said Thursday.
Among other stores closing were The Store in Greenville, Canaan Country Store, Kim’s Market in Millinocket, Smith’s General Store in Topsfield, Holden Log Cabin General Store and D&M Pizza in Hartland.
“It was the gas that did us in, absolutely,” D&M co-owner Jennifer Mills of Athens said this week. “With no one coming in to buy the gas when the gas prices got too high, no one would stop and buy other things in the store. It just got to be too much.”
Mills said that she, her husband and her mother opened the store in March 2007 and were forced to shut it down in January. She said her husband, Nick, worked seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight to make a go of it.
“We put our hearts and souls into that store,” she said.
Other recent closings include Cathance Lake Variety in Cooper, Airline Variety in Baileyville, Clark’s Variety in Calais and Triangle Variety in Pembroke.
Although the Belvins plan to sell their store and restaurant, they intend to hang on to the campground and amphitheater for now. The last two concerts scheduled for the amphitheater will be held this weekend. The Elton John tribute band will perform tonight and the Eagles tribute band will be on hand Saturday. Both concerts start at 8 p.m.
“We’re [looking at] all options. The last option would be sell it all and move back where there’s industry again,” John Belvin said. That would be Tennessee for Don Belvin, where he would do carpentry and perform as a bass player and singer in downtown Nashville. John Belvin expects to return to Lowe’s and hopefully work in New England. Both are carpenters by trade and their wives are nurses.
Maine isn’t what you would call business-friendly, both men said, recalling their struggles from the start. Don Belvin said the business could not get the Megabucks machine because it had to prove itself with the sale of scratch tickets first, and it couldn’t become a tagging station for hunters because there was another tagging station in the community.
“We were told you can’t have this, you can’t do that, when all these other places locally were involved,” Don Belvin said. “We wanted to be everything, everything we could possibly be. Whatever the state has to offer, we wanted to do it. It’s just frustrating because these are things that help businesses like ourselves grow and they’re available through the state; however, they’re singled out, not everybody can have them.”
In addition, the Belvins found that vendors who used to service mom-and-pop stores to keep them afloat would not stop unless they purchased in bulk even though these vendors passed their store on their way to the larger stores. And then there are the taxes.
“Since we’ve been here our taxes have doubled because we fixed up an unimproved building and made it a business and we built three houses which also contributed to taxes for the town of Brownville,” John Belvin said. “We created taxes out of nothing and that’s a drop in the bucket in the overall scheme of things but that’s just one family.”
The Belvins say the state is a divided one. “The north is starving, jobs are leaving us, the only thing we got left is a chance of a resort and we want to encourage tourism but we don’t have the infrastructure here to keep them here,” John Belvin said. “My only hero in this state is Peter Vigue because he’s a man of action and he’s created 500 jobs and he’s a visionary.”
Don Belvin agreed. “It just seems like anything north of Bangor is forgotten,” including the roads. “We built this beautiful tower on a bridge in [Prospect] when we need all these roads fixed, it’s just things like that that have just blown our minds.”
While the Belvins sympathize with the other owners closing stores, it is Piscataquis County that worries them the most.
Piscataquis County is a beautiful county but it needs a good infrastructure and attractions, John Belvin said. “Name an attraction in the county that draws people. Everyone’s got mountains, lakes and rivers in their backyard, so what’s the attraction to hold them?” he said. Being cast aside by the state leads to a low morale, he noted.
Local residents have been “beat up so long that the beatings will continue until the morale improves,” John Belvin said. “They need hope,” he said. Because the county has such a small population, each town is trying to find its own identity and attract business so they’re all in competition with one another, he said.
The brothers praised the local community, which they said has been as supportive as it could be. “We’re very thankful for that,” John Belvin said.
The families hope to find an investor so they can return and continue the amphitheater and perhaps open a train museum to expand on their vision when the economy improves. If the state could provide a 2 percent tourism industry loan, John Belvin said they could build a hotel, a shower house, a community center, something that would be sustained year-round and would help draw people to the region.
“I think we’re a couple of the most innovative people to come to the area,” John Belvin said. “We have used everything that we possibly can to improve our checkbook, to keep it open, to keep it alive, and we’re just coming to the realization this year that it doesn’t look like a good winter for any of us, and in order for us to survive, we need to move.”
Hesitating between his words to compose himself, John Belvin said, “One thing you can do, is if you have a dream, you go for it and if you reach your goal, hold your head high but just never stop dreaming. Our heads are held high.”
Reporter Walter Griffin of the BDN contributed to this report.