BUCKSPORT, Maine — For the first time in nearly a decade, there are holiday lights in the windows and on the porch of the Jed Prouty Inn as well as renewed optimism about a roughly 230-year-old building described by one Bucksport official as “the aorta” within the heart of downtown.
A couple from Calais, John and Rhonda Chambers, officially bought the building on Dec. 5 with the help of a loan from the town as part of a plan to operate an assisted living facility in the former hotel, which has hosted presidents and other dignitaries.
By late last week, work crews were busy cleaning, making repairs and rearranging furniture in a building that looks much better inside than it does curbside.
“We have a lot of heavy cleaning to do,” said Rhonda Chambers as she sat in the bedroom suite that now serves as both home and office for she and her husband. “It sat vacant for almost eight years.”
John Chambers said he originally tried to talk his wife out of buying the property after he checked out the exterior of the building one afternoon.
“Once we came down and took a look inside, though, I changed my mind,” he said.
The Jed Prouty’s last tenant was another assisted living facility that closed in 2004 but left behind much of the building’s furnishings. So the Chambers acquired a building with fully furnished bedrooms — complete with draperies and matching shower curtains — as well as an equipped commercial kitchen, two pianos, lounge chairs and even an antique safe. John Chambers said he hasn’t figured out how to open the latter yet, though.
Even more important, the building received extensive renovations including an elevator and sprinkler system to bring it up to code before the last assisted living facility opened. So much of the interior work that will be required is cosmetic.
“I fell right in love with it,” Rhonda Chambers said, recalling her first tour of the Jed Prouty.
The Chambers hope to accept the first self-paying tenants in a few weeks. Tenants paying through MaineCare, which is the state’s Medicaid program, could begin arriving in six to eight weeks, once the facility is fully licensed.
A sign hanging on the soon-to-be-replaced front porch already declares the facility “now open” and Rhonda Chambers said they have received several calls from interested tenants.
There were times many in Bucksport feared the old hotel located in the center of downtown never would reopen in one form or another.
The real estate agent handling the sale for the former owners — an asset management subsidiary of the Lehman Brothers financial firm — estimated recently that she had showed the building to 125 potential buyers. And an online auction held in October failed to produce a buyer.
Built around 1780 as a two-family house for two prominent brothers, the building was converted to an inn sometime around 1820. Over the years, many famous clients passed through the inn, including presidents Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, statesman Daniel Webster and Admiral Robert Peary, who is credited with leading the first expedition to the North Pole.
But the building has sat vacant for much of the past quarter-century and the years have taken a toll on the old hotel’s exterior. The Chambers will have to replace the expansive front porch, build a new retaining wall at the rear of the property and replace the roof.
Town officials, who have been concerned for some time about the lack of housing options for senior citizens in Bucksport, have offered the Chambers a $200,000 loan to pay for those costly renovations. The loan will be forgiven gradually over 15 years as long as the business continues to operate.
Town Manager Roger Raymond and Dave Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director, have made finding a new owner of the Jed Prouty a top priority for several years now.
On Monday, Milan said if downtown Bucksport is the heart of the community then the Jed Prouty is the aorta of that heart, given the building’s size, location and history. The big challenge, he said, was getting potential buyers to see past the low “curb appeal.”
“The ability to redevelop and reuse this property has been very important to the people of this town,” Milan said. “It is such a key part of downtown Bucksport.”
John Chambers said he does not anticipate having problems finding tenants for the Jed Prouty. The five assisted living facilities that the couple operates in Washington County — four in Calais and one in Robbinston — are pretty much always at 100 percent occupancy and there is no competition within 20 miles of Bucksport.
“The people of Bucksport have been tremendous,” he said. “We have been getting calls and people have been stopping by to welcome us to town.”