EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — A former state worker who lives in Augusta can buy the former Opal Myrick School from the town for $1 to turn it into a 15-apartment vacationers complex, officials said Wednesday.
The Board of Selectmen voted 4-1 during a special meeting on Tuesday to authorize town officials to make a deal with Debbie Dawson. Only Selectman Gary MacLeod opposed.
Dawson, a Realtor and a former state Department of Health and Human Services worker, said she is “totally thrilled” to have won what was essentially a two-horse race.
“It has been a long two months, really, but it is a fabulous property. I am totally thrilled that I am getting it,” Dawson said Wednesday. “I think it will be a great project. Lots of work is ahead.”
Dawson and the Rev. Herschel Hafford, who runs a church in Millinocket, vied for the school. Hafford wanted to turn it into a private Christian academy this September. Dawson proposes she would live in it and operate a laundry wash-and-fold business at the school while catering to clients who would pay $34,999 for a lifetime lease of an apartment in which they could stay for as many as 185 days a year.
Her plan is modeled after apartment complexes such as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco but would be much more moderately priced, she has said.
The town budgeted $34,310 this year to heat and maintain the building. The purchase would save the town the $38,235 it has tentatively budgeted for building maintenance in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, town Administrative Assistant Shirley Tapley has said.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Clint Linscott said that he also liked Hafford’s proposal, but voted for Dawson’s. He said he felt he could not agree to sell a public building to an entity that would in effect reduce the town’s public school population.
In the last 40 years, Millinocket’s population plunged from 7,742 to 4,466 residents while East Millinocket dipped from 2,567 to 1,723 as of the 2010 census. Both are the largest towns in the Katahdin region.
Population predictions compiled by state officials and available at maine.gov show East Millinocket’s population falling to 1,617 in two years, to 1,525 in 2020 and to 1,430 by 2025. Millinocket is expected to lose 500 people and fall to 4,002 in 2015 and to 3,531 by 2020.
East Millinocket’s school-age population has also dropped. In 1995, the town had 380 students living in town. This year, it has 213. Next September, school officials estimate that it will have 209, a 45 percent drop since 1995.
Coupled with a similarly reduced local economy, the population erosion might doom town schools or leave residents facing increasingly large tax increases. Public schools, like government, depend upon economic or population growth or new revenue sources to maintain services against fixed-cost increases and inflation. That hasn’t happened in the Katahdin region in many years.
Linscott and Dawson said they hoped that Hafford’s proposal would be successful elsewhere.
“I think [the competition between the proposals] was really close, and I think either project would have been great for the community,” Dawson said.
She hopes to sign the deal securing the building on Tuesday, before the town meeting, Dawson said. Hafford said he hopes to establish his school elsewhere in the region. He declined to comment further on Wednesday.