HOULTON, Maine — When visitors turn off Interstate 95 in Houlton and head north toward the alley of gas stations, stores, hotels and restaurants, one of the first things they see is a sign directing them to the Tourist Information Center.
Travelers who stop find rest rooms, free Wi-Fi service, a pet-walking area, playground, and also a tourist center equipped with maps, brochures and other information about Houlton and Aroostook County. The center also is a popular spot for walkers, who do laps around the circular driveway all year long.
Two years ago, Maine Department of Transportation officials announced that they were considering closing the center in order to save money and to prevent the duplication of services. Town officials immediately became concerned about the impact of such a closure on the community and The County as a whole.
During a recent Town Council meeting, councilors assured residents that the center will remain open.
They authorized Town Manager Doug Hazlett to sign paperwork that will transfer ownership of the information center from the state to the town. Before the transfer, a rickety chain-link fence at the facility will be repaired, as will the roof. The town will not have to pay any money for the center, but it will spend approximately $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain the buildings and the grounds. The facility will continue to be open year round and operated by volunteers.
Hazlett said Monday the state felt that closing the rest area wouldn’t affect travelers, as a convenience store and restaurant a short distance away is open 24 hours a day, so visitors could stop there to use the rest rooms and buy food and other items.
But councilors were concerned about the impression that visitors to the community would get if they found a boarded up tourist information center.
“We want the center to be a welcoming sight,” Hazlett said Monday. “This facility is a very busy place, and it is not only used by tourists.”
As part of the transfer proposal, the town will be allowed to keep the building for free as long as it continues to house a tourism center. If it ceases to be that, the town has the option to sell it at fair market value.
Councilors were supportive of the idea during the meeting held last week, and Hazlett said the town could try to get financing from other tourist groups to help maintain the center.
“I think we really need to do this,” Councilor Nancy Ketch said during the meeting. “I think we need to keep the tourist information center there in that building.”
Councilor Sue Tortello agreed, saying she was “enthusiastically in favor” of taking over responsibility for the facility.
“It is helpful for tourists and it is a very popular meeting spot,” she said. “A lot of people walk there.”
Hazlett said Monday the final paperwork will likely be available for signing within the next 30 days. Meanwhile, volunteers continue to operate the tourist center.