FORT KENT, Maine — After decades of withstanding floods, storms and downturns in the economy, the owners of a Main Street landmark business confirmed Friday afternoon that fire was the one thing the business could not survive.
“We will be closing our doors for good,” Pat Labbe, co-owner of Nadeau’s House of Furniture, said. “This is the toughest decision we have ever made.”
The historic building housing the furniture store was destroyed in the early morning fire on March 25 that also claimed two other adjacent businesses and seven attached apartments.
Labbe, who operates the store with his brother Phil Labbe, has been working out of the company’s storage warehouse behind the old store since the fire.
“We’ve been operating in the warehouse but we are just used to a bigger space with greater inventory [and] this is not the same,” Pat Labbe said.
“To put something back up in front [of the warehouse] is just not financially possible,” Pat Labbe said. “Not in this tough economy.”
Pat Labbe said estimates of replacement costs for the store are as high as $1.2 million, adding he and his brother will be announcing the dates of a liquidation sale in the coming weeks.
The decision, he said, was not arrived at hastily or easily.
“The number one thing I kept thinking of and still do is the support we’ve had from our customers over the years,” he said. “It’s thanks to them we’ve had a very healthy business.”
Labbe said he owes those customers more than they may realize.
“Because they were so loyal to us I was able to stay and work here,” he said. “I always wanted my family to be in Fort Kent.”
Over the years, Labbe said, the business became an informal gathering place for community members who would meet and chat while lounging in the store’s inventory of chairs and sofas.
Pat and Phil Labbe’s father, Ellery “Arms” Labbe, said Friday, “I’ve been here [with the store] 44 years. Forty-four years is a long time and I’ve made so many friends in that time.”
The elder Labbe recalled clients coming in when he first had the business in the early 1970s and, some years later, seeing their children and grandchildren as customers.
On Friday the Labbes joined Alan Susee, owner of the Fort Kent Sears, in co-hosting a BBQ feed and providing music on the vacant piece of ground where their furniture store once stood in part to thank their loyal customers and in part to help celebrate the grand re-opening of Sears, which also was damaged in the fire.
“I told my kids every good thing comes to an end,” Ellery Labbe said. “I just wish we could find a better way to say thank you to everyone.”
Fort Kent’s town manager Don Guimond, who had just learned of the Labbes’ decision, said it brought a bit of sadness to the day.
“The heart of our community is still beating,” he said. “It’s not good news that Nadeau’s is closing, but we are taking some small steps forward.”
Earlier this year Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, whose district includes Fort Kent, introduced legislation to provide tax incentives and breaks for business development within the fire zone in the form of a tax increment financing district.
“Fort Kent is a town used to making lemonade out of lemons,” Jackson said Friday afternoon. “We are hoping the TIF will help with lower taxes and bring something in.”
Over at Sears, owner Susee said he was saddened to learn the Labbes’ decision.
“It’s disappointing to lose more businesses on Main Street,” he said. “I love this little town and it’s so important for Main Street to grow.”
Susee said it was his intention the afternoon’s celebrations would show people that Fort Kent’s downtown was still alive and “open for business.”
After the March fire, Susee spearheaded a fundraising drive that ultimately raised $46,300 to help the 14 apartment dwellers who were displaced from their homes by the disaster.
“In my head I never had a number in mind,” he said. “I thought maybe we’d raise $4,000 or $5,000 and that would be a big help [but] I never imagined it would get so high.”
Pat Labbe said he agreed with Susee that the town needs a vibrant Main Street and added he hopes whatever happens to the former store’s site adds to that vibrancy.
“I could envision someone coming in and building something to lease to other businesses,” he said. “And today we are happy to help celebrate the grand re-opening for our friends across the street.”
Slightly damaged in the fire was Nadeau’s House of Flooring, a separate business owned by the third Labbe brother, Dave, who on Friday said he supports his brothers’ decision, but has no plans to close his doors.
“We are turning a page,” Dave Labbe said. “This could be a great opportunity [for them] to move on to something different and I wish them the best.”
After 36 years in the furniture business Pat Labbe said he is looking to the future and a life after Nadeau’s House of Furniture which could include taking a more active role in community projects and events.
“I’m 56 years old and after this long in the retail business maybe it’s time for something different,” he said.