HOULTON, Maine — Now that summer is winding down, fewer vehicles are pulling into the Tourist Information Center in Houlton, which is located just off Interstate 95.
That hasn’t stopped town officials from thinking about it, especially since they took over the property in 2011. Town Manager Butch Asselin said Wednesday that, despite tough economic times, he believes the town should keep it. But he also would like to rally other Aroostook County towns, which he says benefit from the facility economically, to help with maintenance costs.
“Twenty-five thousand people come into that information center every year,” he said. “That is a strong indicator that it is needed. It’s a destination point for travelers to get information, to rest, to walk their dogs and stretch. You also see people up there using the Wi-Fi and eating outside and in their cars. Not to mention that people around here use it to walk and to walk their own dog. That also brings them close to local stores and motels, and they also learn about our town and what we offer right in the information center.”
When the town agreed to take over the center in 2011, they believed they 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 inaccurate those estimates were.
Thus far, Asselin said, the town has spent $125,600 since 2011 financing the center, with most of the expenses going for maintenance and grounds costs.
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 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 Aroostook County as a whole. They also were concerned about the impression visitors to the community would get if they found a boarded-up tourist information center. They authorized former Town Manager Doug Hazlett to sign documents to secure the facility acting on information it would take approximately $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain it.
The town received the deed to the property in December 2011, around the same time projections showed it would take about $62,000 a year to run it.
The operating costs include snow and grass removal, janitorial services and year-round staffing. Staffers work inside the center under a contract with the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
However, Asselin said Wednesday, the town has cut down on expenses by cutting the hours at the center. It is no longer open 24 hours a day — just five hours a day during daylight hours. The Houlton Police Department locks up the building for the night. Town employees do not perform maintenance, as the town contracts with an outside firm, Bangor Abatement.
Two staffers paid by the DECD still greet visitors, which Asselin said goes a long way for economic development.
“People come here and they ask where certain facilities and businesses are, and not just in Houlton,” he said. “They ask where Big Rock in Mars Hill is and how to get to Fort Kent or the Allagash. It’s good economic development for all towns in Aroostook County.”
With that in mind, Asselin sent a letter to 43 other communities in The County, explaining that, while the center benefits every city and town, Houlton is shouldering the entire cost. He stated that it was a situation he would like to talk to them more about at an upcoming manager’s meeting.
Thus far, no other cities or towns in Aroostook County have offered financial support to help offset some of the costs for operating the center.
“I think it’s just financial,” Asselin said. “Everyone is in a tough economic boat. No one has any money to spare. They all have to look out for their tax rates.”
The Maine Department of Transportation allocated $10,000 to the town to help offset expenses for the center’s care last year, however, and a private fundraiser held in Houlton generated $1,300 from the business community, according to Asselin.