MILO, Maine — The arson fire that destroyed five buildings and damaged another on Sept. 14 has left the town with a blank platform from which to build a new downtown.
Long before the fire, Milo residents had begun discussions about improving the downtown with green space, attractive streetlights and facade improvements. But the fire changed the entire scope of the project by adding building needs.
Now it’s a question of ultra-modern versus historical buildings, one story versus multiple stories, facades with or without a theme, and solar versus electrical power.
Those were among the issues aired Monday by some of the approximately 30 people who attended a public hearing on downtown revitalization.
“We want to retain the downtown, it is the heart and soul of the community,” Dr. Ken Woodbury, project coordinator of the effort, said Monday.
The cleanup of the splintered and charred Milo Flower Shop, the former movie theater, the Spot Game Room, Milo True Value Hardware Store and the Hobnobbers Pub is expected to begin soon provided the town gets the necessary environmental permits from the Department of Environmental Protection, according to Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan. He said Monday that one insurance company has settled, and two more are close to settling. The Maine National Guard has been asked to assist the town in removing the debris from the two uninsured properties, he said.
The fire, which authorities say started in the back of the pub and was connected to a break-in the same night, also damaged the Milo House of Pizza whose owner already has started restoration efforts.
Woodbury said the focal point for the revitalization project includes the burned block and the untouched upper block. The town has $18,750 to help with the planning and residents will be asked on Oct. 6 to approve a $30,000 matching Community Development Block Grant for the cleanup, trucking and disposal of the debris, he said. That special town meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the town hall.
Val Robertson, who had operated the Hobnobbers Pub, asked whether Woodbury was looking to rebuild Main Street in the hope that businesses will come or if he planned to work on the needs of those businesses displaced by the fire.
Woodbury said the first priority was businesses that were destroyed or damaged. “We’re hoping the people who were there will stay [and serve as anchors],” he said.
For businesses that do not plan to rebuild, the intent of the town is to apply for grants to purchase the land to redevelop, according to Woodbury. It is unknown what businesses plan to rebuild.
To help with the development, Woodbury said, the town intends to apply for a Riverfront Bond Issue for park improvements along the Sebec River, a grant to extend the sewer line from Park Street to the Industrial Park, and a $500,000 grant for facade improvements. Other grants the town could apply for include interest-free loans and a street-safe grant for trees, lampposts and sidewalks, he said.
“We’re tying to get the bulk of this now,” Woodbury said of the grants.
To help with the effort, Woodbury asked residents to serve on two committees: a design team to work with planner Noel Musson of Civil Engineering Services, and a Downtown Promotion Team to investigate what kind of businesses the town needs. He also strongly urged merchants to form a Milo Business Association.
“We need the businesses in Milo to come together as an association for the betterment of the community,” Woodbury said. “This community has got to come together more than it has in the past.”
Gahagan was optimistic that would occur.
“We’re going to work together and we’re going to fix this thing,” he said.