HOULTON, Maine — As the longtime chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Brenda Commander has consistently expressed her desire to see tribal members have the best possible access to affordable, quality health care and tribal housing.
The tribe got closer to those goals Monday morning, as local, state and federal officials from the public and private sectors joined tribal officials and members in breaking ground on a new health center and a six-unit housing complex.
Both projects are located on Maliseet land in Houlton, which is also home to tribal residences, a gymnasium, a day care center and various other facilities.
The more than 10,000-square-foot health center is being funded by a $1.4 million grant from the federal Indian Health Service, a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a $250,000 grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. The tribe is contributing $160,000 in cash and land.
Close to 30 people attended Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony.
“This is an important and exciting day in the history of our tribe,” said Commander, who was one of the many officials to shovel a spade full of dirt during the ceremony.
“This will provide a place where all of our health care services can be delivered seamlessly to tribal members,” she told the crowd. “It will remove barriers that our members face to accessing health care.”
At this point, health care is available to tribal members on their land, but patients have to go to three different facilities for access. Those offices also serve patients in cramped facilities that lack privacy. The new center will eliminate those problems, according to Commander.
The six-unit housing complex will be the first multifamily housing facility funded by USDA Rural Development on Maliseet land. The new structure is being funded through a $1 million USDA Rural Development multifamily housing loan and a $142,264 contribution by the tribe. Bangor Savings Bank is providing interim financing for the project.
At this point, the band has 68 rental units, all of which are full. With a waiting list of about 45 families seeking housing on tribal lands, the tribe wants to build more units, but lacks the funds to do it right now.
Virginia Manuel, USDA rural development state director, said she was pleased to see the groundbreaking take place.
“This will provide affordable health care and affordable, decent space for tribal members to live,” she said, crediting Commander for her work on the projects. “This will be quality housing and provide quality health care.”
She added that over the past five years, USDA has invested $39 million in Maine’s Native American tribes.
Wade Hanson, Houlton’s community development director, also congratulated the tribe on the projects. The tribe and the town have partnered on a number of projects in the past few years, and Hanson called the tribe an “asset” to the community.
Construction on both facilities is expected to be completed next year.