MILLINOCKET, Maine — Sean DeWitt recognizes that a developer would probably be crazy to buy the former Miller’s Department Store building on Penobscot Avenue.
And that’s precisely why he wants to do it.
The building’s first floor is partly collapsed and other parts resemble small ocean waves. Roof leaks have created mildew and mold issues. The basement floods, the plumbing is backed up and pigeons who apparently don’t care much about sanitation live on the second floor, DeWitt said.
But DeWitt is far from crazy. The president of Our Katahdin, a local nonprofit volunteer community and economic development group, said the organization plans to buy the tax-acquired building from the town for $2,000 to raze or revitalize because group members figure that the building is so decrepit no one else will touch it.
“We went looking for the worst building we could find,” DeWitt said.
The store was the Katahdin region’s last large retail clothing and electronics store that shuttered in March 2008 after poor sales forced its closure. Located at 230 Penobscot Ave., Miller’s was junior in size only to Wal-Mart in Lincoln about 30 miles south. Since then, the building has remained vacant.
Our Katahdin will use grant money and fundraisers to pay for the revitalization, DeWitt said. Maine Department of Environmental Protection workers have begun hazardous materials assessments of the property that will be ready in a month.
“We want to try to apply the same methodology to this building that we apply to our projects. The building’s has been sitting there since 2008,” DeWitt said. “We said, what if we were able to get everyone around the table to see what this could be?”
Our Katahdin members would like to rebuild on the site rather than leave it empty. Such a large empty space within the first block of Penobscot Avenue, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, “would be a gap toothed grin for the downtown. We can’t have it,” DeWitt said.
Town Councilor Jesse Dumais applauded the group’s plans.
“I think they are attempting to do great work,” Dumais said Saturday. “I think the struggle that a lot of businesses have in Millinocket is that a lot of business space needs work done to it before anybody can move into it.”
DeWitt helped launch OurKatahdin.com, the nonprofit’s website, in December 2014. Since then, the group has raised $28,185 that has helped finish 18 community development projects, according to its website.
The finished projects include the creation of an investment portfolio, the funding of a Millinocket fireworks show and East Millinocket’s SummerFest in 2015, repair of Millinocket’s downtown gazebo, the revitalization of Hillcrest Park and the purchase and placement of economic development signs and banners, according to its website.
Volunteer groups have done most of the town’s economic development revitalization work, but the Town Council supports that work, and it also has been lending a hand. Councilor Charles Pray and Town Manager John Davis met last month with federal officials under an initiative begun by independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and supported by Republicans U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
The meeting with the U.S. Economic Development Assessment team went well, Pray and Davis told councilors during their Aug. 25 meeting.
The team arose from King’s persuading federal officials to treat the dissipation of northern Maine’s paper industries like a natural disaster. The team met with leaders from across northern Maine as part of an effort to focus economic development and relief efforts. State officials hope the work will lead to millions of dollars of economic aid coming to northern Maine.
Meanwhile, Our Katahdin hopes to close on the sale of the Miller building Sept. 9, DeWitt said.
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating money to the Our Katahdin group should visit its website, ourkatahdin.com.