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Tenants, businesses recovering from Fort Kent fire, donations top $42,000

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Smoke could still be seen Monday rising from the rubble after a major fire in Fort Kent early Sunday morning, March 25, 2012.
By Julia Bayly, Special to the BDN

FORT KENT, Maine — Three weeks after a fire destroyed a section of the West Main Street business district and displaced more than a dozen residents, help and support continue to pour in, with everyone from former residents to politicians pitching in.

More than $42,000 has been raised for the 15 tenants who lost their homes and most of their possessions in the fast-moving fire that began behind Nadeau’s House of Furniture in the early morning hours of March 25.

Within hours the blaze had consumed three buildings housing the furniture store, Acadia Home Care and seven apartments.

Several nearby buildings had smoke, water and heat damage.

“When we started this fundraising I was very naive and thought we’d be lucky to get four or five thousand dollars,” Alan Susee, owner of the Fort Kent Sears store, said Saturday morning. “We exceeded that amount by 9 a.m. the Monday morning after the fire.”

Firefighting crews from nine volunteer departments on both sides of the Maine-New Brunswick border responded and have been credited with preventing the fire from spreading through the west end of the town.

Thanks to the quick action of members of the Fort Kent Police Department and several community members, the tenants in the apartments were evacuated with minutes to spare, and the fire caused no injuries or loss of life.

It is estimated the blaze destroyed 20 percent of the Fort Kent downtown business area. It has left a large hole on Main Street.

“It’s really early in the process to know what people are going to do,” Town Manager Don Guimond said on Friday. “As a community, we are trying to present and look at all the options.”

Some of those options will be discussed during an open meeting Monday night at the Fort Kent town office beginning at 6:30 p.m.

“There is no set agenda,” Guimond said. “It’s an opportunity for people to get together to discuss what they would like to see happen, what directions things may go and what options are at our disposal.”

Part of the recovery effort could involve a newly created tax increment finance district, or TIF, in the downtown area.

LD 1910, An Act to Allow the Town of Fort Kent To Create a Downtown Tax Increment Financing District Using the Current Assessed Value of the Downtown, was sponsored by Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and co-sponsored by Rep. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, as emergency legislation.

It was passed by both the Maine House and Senate on Thursday and sent on to Gov. LePage for his signature.

Once it is signed into law, the Fort Kent Town Council still would have to act to create the district.

As a TIF district, Guimond said, property taxes on any improvements to the downtown area made after April 1 would be earmarked for use within that district.

“With a TIF we are protected against that tax money from being held against us in the school funding formula or state revenue sharing,” Guimond said. “The tax money generated within the district stays in the community.”

His bill, Martin said, mirrors one passed for the town of Lincoln when that municipality experienced a devastating fire a decade ago.

“Anything we can do to help reconstruction on Main Street is vital in mind,” Martin said. “This will allow the town to start developing a concept of what they want to do.”

Jackson grew up shopping in Fort Kent and was saddened to see businesses such as the furniture store and medical supply company experience such a devastating loss.

“I figured this [legislation] was a way to help,” Jackson said. “Once we knew no one was hurt, then we started thinking about the lost homes and businesses and really wanted to do something for them.”

The Labbe family has owned Nadeau’s House of Furniture since the mid-1970s and at the time of the fire it was under second-generation owner Pat Labbe, who worked there with his brother Phil Labbe and their father, Ellery Labbe.

A third brother, Dave Labbe, operates a flooring business which was not damaged in the fire and from which the furniture store now is based.

“The old building is gone and we hope to fill in the hole this week,” Pat Labbe said Saturday. “We are making a little progress.”

Workers are cleaning out a nearby warehouse damaged in the fire and Pat Labbe said by the second week of May it will serve as his business’s temporary location.

“People in this community are so very giving,” Pat Labbe said. “Tenants who lost their apartments are coming in to order merchandise from us, saying it’s a way for them to give back to the community that helped them out.”

Susee said he’s seeing the same thing at the Sears store, with those displaced by the fire furnishing their new homes and apartments with as much local merchandise as possible.

“We plan to give out the third distribution of the donated money on Monday,” Susee said, adding donations have come from as far away as Arkansas.

In addition, other groups from around the St. John Valley and southern Maine have undertaken their own fundraising campaigns for those affected by the fire.

“I got a card with a $50 check in it from a man who said he was born in Fort Kent in 1917,” Susee said. “This is the kind of thing that makes me so proud to be a citizen of this town.”

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