Houlton pursues state funding for tourist center

Posted April 16, 2013, at 10:06 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — When the Town Council first agreed to take over the Tourist Information Center just off Interstate 95 in Houlton in 2011, it believed the town would spend approximately $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain the buildings and the grounds.

It was only after the town gained control of the facility that it learned how wrong those estimates were.

At this point, the town is spending $4,300 a month on maintenance, for a total of $52,000 a year. That has had a sizable impact on the municipal budget and officials are trying to tap into other financial wells to soften the blow.

“We have $52,000 in the budget for it this year,” Town Manager Gene Conlogue said Tuesday. “That is down from $62,000 last year. We have been able to be more efficient and decrease the number of hours needed for maintenance there, so that has lowered the cost.”

The center offers travelers restrooms, free Wi-Fi service, a pet-walking area, playground, and a facility equipped with maps, brochures and other information about Houlton, Aroostook County and the state. The center also is a popular spot for walkers, who do laps around the circular driveway all year long.

In 2009, Maine Department of Transportation officials announced that they were considering closing the center in order to save money and to prevent the 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 restrooms 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. They also were concerned about the impression that visitors to the community would get if they found a boarded-up tourist information center. They authorized Town Manager Doug Hazlett to sign documents to secure the facility.

The town received the deed to the property in December 2011, around the same time that projections showed it would take about $62,000 a year to run it.

The estimated operating costs include snow and grass removal, janitorial services and year-round staffing. Staffers work inside the information center under a contract with the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Town employees do not perform maintenance, as the town contracts with an outside firm.

Conlogue said Tuesday that he, Community Development Director Lori Weston and economic development officials recently met with an official from the MDOT.

“The MDOT is willing to see if they can include some money for us in their budget next year,” he said. “They are willing to work with us. Their fiscal year begins in July, so that is an option.”

Conlogue said that he believes it is in the best interest of the town to keep the center in Houlton.

“We have 25,000 people stop in the actual information center there every year, and that is not counting the people who stop in just to use the restrooms or catch a nap or let children play on the playground,” he said, “And people stop there to get info about this town, other towns in The County, as well as Bangor and Portland and locations such as L.L. Bean. This center benefits everyone, not just the people of Houlton.”

Last December, the town’s budget committee 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 in 2011 but was not fully pursued.

Conlogue said that “customarily, towns and cities don’t want to budget for things that aren’t in their communities.”

He said Tuesday that the MDOT could have a decision on the funding in less than two months.

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