Houlton committee wants help from other towns to run tourist center

Posted Dec. 06, 2012, at 6:29 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — In July 2011, the town opted to take ownership from the state of the Tourist Information Center, citing it as a tourism gem.

But shouldering the close to $60,000 cost for annual upkeep isn’t something that town officials want to do alone anymore, and the municipal budget committee on Wednesday evening noted that it would be best to see if other area towns can help.

During a board of budget review meeting on Wednesday evening, members talked about maintaining the center for another year. The board is charged with looking over the budget and making recommendations that are then passed on to the council.

Town Manager Gene Conlogue set aside $52,000 to maintain the center this year. That is slightly lower that the $62,567 set aside last year.

The town originally decided to take ownership of the Tourist Information Center in order to prevent the Maine Department of Transportation from closing it. The DOT decided to close the center to save money and to prevent duplication of services. The state said that closing the rest area wouldn’t affect travelers since there is a convenience store and restaurant a short distance away that is open 24 hours a day.

The town saw the site as beneficial, since travelers can use restrooms, a playground and pet walking area, and browse through an area equipped with maps, brochures and other information about Houlton and Aroostook County.

In July 2011, councilors thought they would spend $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain the facility, located just off Interstate 95. Fearing that a shuttered tourist center would send a bad message to visitors, councilors authorized then Town Manager Doug Hazlett to oversee the transfer of ownership of the information center from the state to the town.

It received the deed to the property last December, around the same time that projections showed it would take about $62,000 a year to run. The estimated operating costs included 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.

As part of the deal, the town will be allowed to keep the building for free as long as it continues to house a tourism center. If that ceases, the town has the option to buy it at fair market value.

During the meeting on Wednesday evening, Conlogue noted that the tourist center is a benefit to the community. It is strategically located right off Interstate 95. Brochures from towns, businesses and attractions throughout Aroostook County are housed there.

Committee members again offered the idea of asking other towns who benefit from the center through the information offered there to help pay for it. This was briefly discussed last year but was not fully pursued.

Conlogue said he felt that area towns and cities with brochures and other material there should again be asked about offering a stipend for that service.

“We have to see who will participate,” he said on Wednesday.

Conlogue also said that the town could see if any tourism related grants were available to operate the facility.

This year’s proposed $9.7 million municipal budget is up from last year’s $9.1 million budget.

This year, the town has lost revenue from multiple sources, is dealing with skyrocketing expenses for items such as fuel oil, and is expecting its share of the SAD 29 school budget to increase.

The budget approved by the review board will go before the council at the end of the year or early next year.

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