ROCKLAND, Maine — Rick Rockwell of St. George was listening to a band playing in front of a bricked-up, worn-down building on Main Street a few years ago when he realized how much the building didn’t fit in.
Nearby were a spa, dog boutique, gift shop, antique shop and tavern. But there, next to the ocean on Route 1, was this old wreck.
“It was incongruous to Main Street. It was neglected,” he said. “There was all this vibrancy and life — except this building. I said, ‘If I [renovate this building], it will change the whole street.’ I think this is a permanent change for the better.”
About $2 million dollars later, there are no rats left in the basement at 449 Main Street. The shag carpeting was taken out with the 1970s wood-panelling, but most of the old stuff is there in a new way. For instance, some of the 40 doors found in the basement were refurbished and used throughout the space.
Rockwell used Maine’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit to help pay for his project. Without the help of the Maine tax credit, paired with a similar federal tax credit, he might not have revamped the brick building.
Maine’s tax incentives will pay up to 25 percent of the costs of a project. Paired with federal incentives, which will repay 20 percent of costs, that can be 45 cents back per dollar invested.
In the next four years, Rockwell expects to get back 45 cents for every dollar he put into his project — an estimated $900,000.
On Friday, a group of local business people, politicians and historic preservationists gathered to admire Rockwell’s work and to promote the tax credits that made it possible.
In the 1800s, the building was John Bird Grocers. Then it was Rockland Electric and Water Co. In its life, it has been Central Maine Power, government offices and then nothing for decades — just wood and bricks taking up space.
Now, after 2 years and $2 million, the first floor boasts brilliant wood floors, white walls and refinished tin ceilings. Between them is housed a surf wear and casual clothing store, Cutwater Outfitters — Rockwell’s first tenant.
In order to get the state rebate, people must keep the same floor plan. The building doesn’t have to remain an exact replica, however, owners must keep important historic details.
In Rockwell’s case, the second floor windows remain the focal point of rooms. They’re what Rockwell’s project manager Andrea Palise calls “drippy 100-year-old glass.” Instead of perfect, flat, clear modern glass that show a crisp image of the world, they seem to create a mirage of whatever is outside the window.
Palise and others who worked on the building “painstakingly” picked off the old wainscoting plank by plank by shoving their fingernails under the boards. Then they refurbished and repainted the boards. The effect is a clean white fence-like frame for freshly painted gray walls against the building’s original hardwood floors.
The dozen or so people on the tour Friday stopped and gasped with awe when the door was opened to one of two third-floor artist’s lofts. The new apartment featured shiny new granite counters, chrome light fixtures, bright white walls and massive windows overlooking Main Street. Both apartments have rooftop access to a patio and garden full of pink flowers. Rockwell hopes to attract traveling artists, whom he expects will rent the apartments on a weekly basis.
“The building was built with the lowest carbon footprint we could create. And we wanted people to use the entire building,” Rockwell said Friday.
From where Rockwell was standing during part of the tour, on a path in his rooftop garden, he could see Vinalhaven, Camden Hills, Owls Head Light, the Rockland Breakwater, the entire harbor and downtown.
The project is the first in Rockland to use Maine’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit and one of about 25 in Maine. Recently, the credit was extended until 2021 by the state Legislature.
Sen. Chris Rector, R, Thomaston, sponsored the tax credit bill and participated in the tour on Friday. According to Rector, the only people in Maine who have received the incentive have used it to make historic buildings into commercial spaces — either retail or apartment buildings.
“The reason [the extension of the Maine tax credits] is important was because we saw investors say ‘I can’t do that, the incentives might go away.’ We needed to give them security,” Rector said.
For buildings like 449 Main Street, it’s more expensive to historically preserve it than it would be to tear it down and build something new. So it’s up to Maine to give investors and businesspeople reasons to keep what’s already here, he said.
“You couldn’t afford to do these projects otherwise,” Rector said. But if investors tore down the buildings, towns would lose that piece of their histories.
After the tour, Greg Paxton, the executive director of Maine Preservation stood in Rockwell’s rock-walled basement. The basement has large windows looking out into the sunny harbor, but also dungeon-like brick arches in the underground rooms. This space, Rockwell hopes, will be rented for use as a restaurant.
Paxton said preservation is economic development.
“Historic preservation is the best downtown revitalization tool. You take what’s already in your town and improve it,” Paxton said.
Further, it’s not just Maine people who are taking advantage of the state tax incentive money.
“This attracts out-of-state-money. They buy, rehabilitate and then get the credit. That’s exactly what we need — to bring out-of-state money to make businesses in Maine,” Paxton said. “The money stays in the building.”