MILO, Maine — On Sept. 14, 2008, residents and town officials watched their downtown burn. A fire set by an arsonist tore through a flower shop, an arcade, a former theater, hardware store and Hobnobber’s Pub early that morning, leaving the downtown block in ruins.
“It was a tremendous, devastating blow to this community,” Town Manager David Maynard said Thursday.
“From their point of view, when they looked down here: Everything’s ruined, everything’s gone.”
From disbelief, however, came determination to rebuild.
On Thursday morning, nearly 4½ years after firefighters snuffed out the flames, the community celebrated the grand opening of the Milo Heritage Building, a facility officials likened to the phoenix, the mythological bird reborn from its own ashes.
Community leaders, residents, and representatives from development groups and political offices packed into Elaine’s Cafe and Bakery, the first of two businesses that will take root in the new building, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Elaine Poulin, owner of the cafe since 2006, told those in attendance that she wanted to make the community proud. Elaine’s relocated to the 1,800-square-foot Heritage Building on Feb. 10.
The construction was funded through a $500,000 USDA Rural Development Rural Business Enterprise Grant. The Department of Economic and Community Development provided a $60,000 Community Development Block Grant to help Poulin purchase new bakery equipment. Virginia Manuel, state director for USDA Rural Development, and MDEC Community Development Program Manager Andrea Smith were on hand to congratulate the community.
Representatives from the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Mike Michaud read statements from the politicians during the event. They credited Milo residents and officials for the courage and determination to rebuild.
“[King] thinks it’s just terrific that you were able to pick up, brush off and get this done,” said King’s regional representative, Elizabeth Schneider MacTaggart.
Piscataquis County Economic Development Council Director Ken Woodbury credited the town’s Board of Selectmen for unanimously supporting each step of the process since 2008.
“The Heritage Building has been a collaborative effort since the very beginning,” Woodbury said.
In 2007, Milo started planning for a revamped downtown. Officials who visited Skowhegan to see what a successful downtown redevelopment project looked like were “enthused, revved up and ready to go,” according to Woodbury.
Then the fire struck, destroying a block of downtown businesses. While tragic, the fire also presented an opportunity and incentive to push forward with downtown projects, he said.
In July of 2009, Christopher M. Miliano, then 32, admitted to setting the fire in an attempt to cover his tracks after he burglarized the pub. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Gary and Jean Robinson have lived in Milo since 1954. After seeing the devastation caused by the fire, Jean said she remembered thinking “Main Street is practically gone, it was just hard to believe.”
“We haven’t seen this many cars on Main Street in a long time,” said Gary Robinson, who said he “had a dam job” working at hydroelectric sites before retiring.
There is a second business space, this one 1,500 square feet, still available at the Heritage Building.
“I just hope it’s taken on by somebody with a great idea who wants to make it happen,” Robinson said.