Orono eyes ambitious downtown project

concepts Katahdin building site BLUE concept. w/Neff story
concepts Katahdin building site BLUE concept. w/Neff story
Posted Nov. 09, 2010, at 8:06 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — While there will be plenty of projects and developments to keep Cathy Conlow busy in her new job as city manager of Bangor, there will be no shortage of them for her replacement in Orono, either.

Conlow will be Orono’s town manager for only another three weeks before she takes on her new job in Bangor, but a sizable project she has helped oversee from its inception is just getting started.

The “Katahdin Project” is an ambitious one involving the possible redevelopment and consolidation of five adjacent properties making up a 1.8-acre tract of land downtown along Main Street and alongside the Stillwater River.

One of those parcels is the land on which a nearly 180-year-old, 18-unit apartment building stood before burning down in June 2009. The land, owned by the Dudley family, recently was purchased by the University Credit Union.

“We wanted a presence downtown, and that’s the No. 1 reason we purchased that property last week,” said Matt Walsh, president and CEO of University Credit Union. “We haven’t really committed to anything other than at least a retail presence, but we’re also looking at it as a possible opportunity for us to centralize and make it a main office.”

Conlow said the proposed project would be a “mixed-use site” for office, residential and commercial usage incorporating town property, the Katahdin apartment building site and some privately owned property, but there’s still a way to go even before ground is broken.

“All the owners of the different parcels pitched in to pay for the plans, and now we’re going to work together to build some good will and come to an agreement to develop it,” she said.

A4 Architects of Bar Harbor provided three different plans for the project, but two have emerged as favorites — one incorporating a plaza in front of the site, underground parking, and more space while using more of the riverfront, and the other offering more potential for building expansion.

“They’re talking 20,000 to 40,000 square feet, and we’ll probably need no more than 10,000,” Walsh said. “Securing that land allows us options. We’re not in a huge rush to do anything with it because what we’re doing now is deciding what to do with that location.

“We’ll probably spend the next two to four months doing a strategic facilities plan and getting an architectural firm on board to help us figure it out.”

Walsh said UCU has about 85 employees total with “30 to 50” working in Orono at three locations: the main office on campus, a collections and marketing department on Rangeley Road, and an Internet technology and call center on U.S. Route 2 near the University of Maine entrance. There also are a finance and lending branch on Union Street in Bangor and five other locations statewide from Portland to Presque Isle.

“We have nine locations total with two [vice presidents] here and another in Bangor,” Walsh said. “About 30 employees would be impacted by this consolidation, and no matter what we do, the likelihood is that we’ll probably move out of the tech center down the street and sell that building.

“We very much want to work with the town because they certainly have larger plans than what we need.”

The sticking point will be coming up with a way to get three property owners — the town of Orono, UCU and private landowner Brud Folger, who owns two parcels that have storage facilities on them, to agree on a redevelopment plan for the five land parcels as a whole. Also, Orono residents will play a significant part in the process.

Conlow is optimistic the project won’t drag on interminably.

“We don’t envision it taking 10 years,” she said. “Realistically, it takes about two years to get something from start to finish, and these are just concepts, so I would say it’ll be two years before we start something.”

“This is a sentinel site for Orono, and whatever goes there is really going to define our downtown,” she added. “It’s very important to all of us and we’re looking at it as having this one chance to get it right.”

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