HOULTON, Maine — Six months ago, when the town decided to take ownership of the Tourist Information Center in order to prevent the Maine Department of Transportation from closing it, they thought they would spend between $6,000 and $8,000 a year to maintain the facility.
They thought wrong.
Officials now estimate the annual cost to keep the center going at $62,000.
Despite that cost, the town is moving forward with plans to fully take over the building in February.
When visitors turn off I-95 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 nearby Tourist Information Center.
Travelers who stop find rest rooms, free Wi-Fi, a pet-walking area, playground and 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, MDOT officials announced that they were considering closing the center in order to save money and to prevent duplication of services. 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.
Town officials immediately became concerned about the impact of such a closure on the community and The County as a whole.
In June, councilors authorized Town Manager Doug Hazlett to sign paperwork that will transfer ownership of the information center from the state to the town. The town will not have to pay any money for the center, but the amount of money they thought it would take to operate the facility has increased substantially.
During a council meeting on Monday evening, Hazlett said that the town had received the deed to the property and had already begun snow removal at the facility. The estimated $62,000 operating costs will include snow and grass removal, janitorial services and year-round staffing. Staffers work at the center under a contract with the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Councilor Mike Jenkins was concerned about the money it will take each year to maintain the facility.
“I really wish we would have known the true total back in June,” he said.
Hazlett agreed, calling it a “learning experience,” but one that still needs to have the same outcome.
“We have already put the $62,000 in the budget,” said Hazlett. “Either way, it is not a choice of letting the center be closed. It is a major stopping point for people who get off the interstate and is a good tourism tool. It wouldn’t be good to have people come into town and see the Tourist Information Center boarded up.”
Hazlett said on Wednesday that the town is no longer looking to keep the center open fewer hours a day in order to save money. It currently is open 24 hours a day.
He also said the town will be seeking funding from other organizations in Aroostook County such as chambers of commerce and businesses that also benefit from the center. A number of businesses and organizations display in the center brochures about festivals, fairs and other events.
If the facility were closed “the entire county would lose,” Hazlett said Wednesday, “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.
Town officials will talk more about the issue at a budget meeting next week.