EAST MACHIAS, Maine — It has been eight years since the Downeast Salmon Federation began working on the former Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. building in town with plans to convert it to an aquatic research center.
Now, armed with a $215,000 challenge grant from the state’s River Front Community Development Bond, the group is poised to complete the work and open the center later this year. The grant awarded to the town was one of 14 awarded from a $5 million state bond issue for a new River Grant Program approved by voters in 2007.
The new East Machias Aquatic Research Center will house a freshwater, flow-through research and fisheries enhancement hatchery, a museum and visitors center, an archival storage room, a wet lab-classroom, certified water quality lab, a GIS and technical resources center, and office space.
The project already has turned an “eyesore” of a building into a showplace that has the potential to benefit the fish population in the region, but could provide a little boost to the region’s economy as well, according to East Machias Selectman Bucket Davis.
Davis noted that the hatchery will raise fish to stock nearby rivers, lakes and streams and also could provide some employment.
“Down the road, it could create a few jobs,” he said. “They’re going to need someone to operate the hatchery. And it’s going to involve the kids at the Elm Street school and the high school monitoring the quality of water. And the university will be involved. I think it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
The federation, working with a group of partners that has included the town, Washington Academy and the University of Maine at Machias, among others, already has removed the old Bangor Hydro dam — a project that earned them national recognition — and transformed the exterior of the old cement block building.
According to salmon federation executive director Dwayne Shaw, the grant funds will be used to complete the renovations on the interior of the building.
The work completed so far has included adding a second floor to a portion of the building to make it a full two-story building, increasing the size of the building from 5,050 square feet to 7,262 square feet. The center also includes 350 feet of river frontage on the East Machias River.
The federation also has added insulation and exterior sheathing along with locally cut cedar shingles.
“It fits into the setting much better now,” Shaw said.
Using a $50,000 grant through the Public Utilities Commission demonstration project program, the federation has installed solar panels that are generating power for the building and more. The federation now is selling excess power to Bangor Hydro.
“We’ve taken our time,” Shaw said Tuesday. “We want to do this right. We’re making every effort toward energy efficiency and sustainability.”
Last summer, the group also ran water lines to the river to provide fresh water to the planned hatchery portion of the building. According to Shaw, they plan to begin raising land-locked salmon at the facility this winter as a way to test the new water supply system before bringing in the endangered East Machias strain of Atlantic salmon.
In addition to Atlantic salmon, which will be the main focus of the hatchery operations, Shaw said, the federation may raise other fish at the site, including sea-run brook trout.
The new grant funds will allow the project to move forward. Planned activities include adding a second floor inside the building, installation of windows facing the river, and development of the full hatchery and lab facilities. The grant also will fund a heating system for the building, and Shaw said he hopes to develop a demon-stration project using a commercial pellet stove.
Shaw anticipates the facility could create four or five jobs, including facilities manager, hatchery manager and an outreach-educator position. The facility, designed for freshwater and estuarine research, will complement the Downeast Institute at UMM, which focuses on marine research. The facility also will provide lab space for university and visiting researchers.
Plans call for the facility to include public restrooms for visitors, especially those who use the new rail-to-trail recreation trail. The center is located near the tracks, and Shaw said there would be an opportunity to develop partnerships with trail groups.
The facility not only will be an attraction for the town, but it also contains a temperature-controlled archive room, which already holds some of the town’s historical documents. The visitor center and museum also will display some of the town’s photographs and paintings.
The River Grant is a challenge grant that requires the federation to match the grant funds with an additional $100,000. A portion of that amount is in hand, Shaw said, but they still will need to raise some funds for the local match.
The federation has completed most of the paperwork for required environmental reviews for the remainder of the project. Bids requests should be going out within the next several weeks and work should begin early in March.
If all goes well, Shaw said, the facility should be up and running sometime this summer.