COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Even when the economy is good, many small towns cannot afford an economic director. Many cannot afford the services of town managers or administrative assistants.
In Columbia Falls, a coastal town of 560 people, there is no director, no town manager, and recently its only school was closed for financial reasons. But there are residents and advisory committees that are helping the community to thrive.
When the elementary school was turned back to the town in 2010, the selectmen formed the school options committee to research options and the feasibility of renting out the space.
Today, the former school is home to the town offices, the Columbia Falls Library and the corporate headquarters of Worcester Holdings and Wreaths Across America.
The committee obtained a grant to replace the building’s defunct heating system. It also hammered out lease agreements, rules for rental of the gymnasium and coordinated an agreement with local athletic groups.
“We’re fully rented,” committee member John Tibbetts said recently.
Building on that success, selectmen last October created the municipal advisory committee to help with grant applications.
“There is a very balanced membership,” Tibbetts said. “Members include the town librarian, the selectmen, the fire chief, assessors.”
Members of the committee said its role was to accomplish some of the research and grant writing for the selectmen.
“We are an advisory committee only,” Tibbetts said. “We report and make recommendations to the selectmen.”
“We do the legwork that the selectmen don’t have time for,” municipal advisory committee member Chuck Hammond said. Hammond said the panel works with the Washington County Council of Governments. Some recent accomplishments include obtaining an energy audit for the town office complex, designing a sign for the complex — which is under construction by a local sign maker — working with the fire chief on a grant for a thermal imaging camera, creating a town website, and obtaining state-backed PACE loans for local homeowners.
“Imagine the selectmen, who all have full-time jobs, working with a small-scale town office,” Hammond said. “They don’t have the time. And we’re free.”
Grace Falzarano, a former selectman, also serves on the municipal committee and is working on establishing a harvest market in downtown Columbia Falls. Local farmers, artists, gardeners and others will have space at the municipal complex to sell their wares.
“It also is a great way to build community,” said Falzarano.
A key project for the committee is to find grants to continue the restoration of the historic town hall, the former meetinghouse, which was built in the 1840s.
“The town has done some restoration work,” Tibbetts said, “but we are looking for grants to continue the process and install bathrooms and ramps.”
Another municipal committee member, Pam Look, organized a trash pick-up day earlier this spring. Residents cleaned roadsides and yards and after covering only half the town, they had picked up 1,250 pounds of junk.
“The town looked so good we went out the next Wednesday afternoon with four pickup trucks and matched that same amount,” Look said. “And we made $60 in returnables.”
Look said she hopes the pick-up day will become an annual event.
“We are very fortunate,” Look said. “We have a great community here. Everyone is eager to pitch in and help.”
Tibbetts said there is so much potential in Columbia Falls and the selectmen use the committee to tap into that and get ready for development. He encourages other townspeople to attend municipal advisory committee meetings and share ideas. The dates and times of the meetings are posted at the town office.