MILLINOCKET, Maine – A furniture and flooring manufacturer might lease Stearns High School property under a plan school and town leaders are considering, officials said Friday. Maine Heritage Timber Co. needs to expand its woodshop operations.
The company wants to lease a woodshop from the Millinocket School Department once used by Northern Penobscot Tech-Region III students, said Tom Shafer, co-owner of the company.
Lease terms are not finalized, but the company will pay for the shop’s utilities, he said.
Maine Heritage needs to stay local, Shafer said. The company, which launched four years ago and has 12 full-time employees, manufactures wainscoting, flooring, countertops, conference tables and other furniture from wood hauled from Quakish Lake.
“That’s what we need and there was nothing else available in town. It was either look elsewhere, meaning outside the town, and we really wanted to keep it in town,” Shafer said Friday. “We looked at going to Dover-Foxcroft, but it was just too far.”
A public school that accommodates a private business “is kind of an odd thing to have,” Heritage co-owner Steve Sanders told the town council during a public hearing on the proposal on Thursday night. “But this is an isolated neighborhood.”
A lease arrangement like school officials propose is probably not unusual, said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association.
He couldn’t think think of any immediate examples, but said that with schools statewide needing to discard unused but costly resources and develop new revenues, “such an arrangement is probably not unusual,” he said.
“If there is a facility there sitting dormant and there is an opportunity for them to develop revenue, it might even be irresponsible for them not to [propose] it,” Durost said.
The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track such public-private enterprises, said Samantha Warren, the department’s spokeswoman.
A separate building from Stearns, the shop is “set back from the other buildings” on the campus, Sanders said, thus limiting students’ exposure to the business.
Use of the shop will allow Heritage to hire another full-time worker and build long wooden structures such as bars for cafes and restaurants, Shafer said.
The Millinocket Planning Board voted 4-0 on June 11 to recommend that the council change the zoning of the school property from open-space/recreational to downtown commercial for three years.
The three-year period will allow town officials to revisit the change.
Council response was mixed. Planning board chairman Anthony Filauro, who did not vote on June 11, and Councilors Bryant Davis and Gilda Stratton were uneasy with mixing the population of the junior and senior high school with commercial interests.
Councilors Jimmy Busque, Michael Madore and Richard Theriault sounded enthusiastic about helping a local business to grow.
“What I see here is a local manufacturer looking to expand and that’s great news,” Busque said during the meeting.
“I have reservations at doing this at the school. I think the zoning is there for a reason,” Davis said.
Small manufacturers such as Heritage Timber “are the ones who are going to create the jobs in the area,” Madore said, calling the idea “a very worthwhile project.”
Planning board members “think it is workable in this circumstance, but we don’t want to see it continue,” Filauro said.
“That was built as a school. It is school property. That is what it should be there,” former school board chairman Thomas Malcolm said.
The school board voted 4-1 to support the idea during a recent meeting, chairman Michael Jewers said.
He said the proposal would draw the school system some slight but much-needed revenue and save on school costs, goals the council has pushed the school board to accomplish.
Students will also get regular exposure to Heritage Timber as part of classroom work. This would encourage them to pursue building trades and might lead to them taking jobs at Heritage, thus fulfilling another town-wide goal – retaining its younger population, Jewers said.
“We think this is a win-win for our school,” Jewers said.
The council will hold a second public hearing on the proposal on July 10.