The former Mid-Town Shopping Center, abandoned for more than three years, will be replaced with a new Fish River Rural Health center. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — A new health care center for Fish River Rural Health is coming to the abandoned Mid-Town Shopping Center on Main Street in Madawaska. The town, which acquired the land through a charitable donation when the previous landlords left, will donate the land to Fish River for the new center.

Madawaska Board of Selectmen voted unanimously on June 23 to approve a memorandum of understanding with Fish River for the project to move forward, which is jointly part of a planned expansion for Fish River and Madawaska’s ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. The project does not include the  abandoned Kmart in the same lot, which is owned by Seritage Growth Properties, and not the town.

The new facility will relocate and more than double the size of Fish River’s current 13-person operation in town. CEO Heather Pelletier said she’s prepared to hire 14 new staff members out of the gate, including an additional counselor, dental hygienist and potentially add a new chiropractics program. The facility would expand the number of treatment rooms, increasing Fish River’s day-to-day capacity for care.

The parking lot will maintain a common area of parking for the nearby buildings. Preliminary ideas for the redevelopment of the lot also include a path to connect recreational trails to the downtown area.

Environmental remediation on the abandoned buildings should begin this fall and demolition of the old buildings is expected in the early months of 2022. Meanwhile Fish River will assemble design plans for the new facility, a process Pelletier said would likely take at least six months.

Money for tearing down the two multilevel buildings that make up Mid-Town will come from a competitive $300,000 Maine Department of Economic & Community Development grant the town won this spring, as well as from the $3 million downtown revitalization bond the Madawaska taxpayers approved in 2018.

This rendering by Fish River Rural Health’s architecture firm, Harriman, shows a theoretical design for the new health care center. Credit: Courtesy of Heather Pelletier

From there, the construction of the new facility will be funded entirely by Fish River, which has already secured a pre-approved rate for a loan on the project.

Revitalizing the downtown has been a longtime goal for the town, especially since it published its Grand Plan Madawaska in 2017: a decade-long development plan for a town that has been battling economic decline for years.

Town Manager Gary Picard said he and other members of the town government have been pursuing retail stores big and small since these particular buildings were abandoned and donated to the town at the end of 2018. But with retail stores struggling nationwide even before the pandemic, nothing came back. After two near-deals fell through in late 2020, Picard heard about Fish River’s plans in April and approached Pelletier directly.

“I have to pinch myself a little bit because we’ve been working terribly hard,” Picard said. “The community has high expectations of the municipal government here — that we work hard to attract businesses and find jobs, to clean up the downtown and make it prosper.”

In this instance, the town’s efforts coincided with Fish River’s planned expansion in Madawaska. When the health care nonprofit first came to Madawaska in 2017, it was on a part-time, 20-hour per week basis to help patients who were already being seen at Fish River locations in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake, Pelletier said.

A year into their new location at offices rented from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in town, her providers were overwhelmed with new patients — especially working people who hadn’t been able to travel a half hour both ways to Fort Kent for basic care.

“I didn’t realize how many residents were forgoing care,” Pelletier said. “It was a reality break for me.”

Pelletier said the planned expansion will bring Madawaska’s health care services up to meet with the demand she and her practitioners see every day.

The project will coincide with two other major construction undertakings in Madawaska: the new U.S. Land Port of Entry and International Bridge projects. It also lines up with the town’s other revitalization efforts, including a $100,000 grant Madawaska received to help downtown businesses update their front-facing facades.

Picard said he hopes tearing down some of the adjacent abandoned buildings and bringing a high-traffic facility to the location will encourage new businesses to come, including, potentially, to the former Kmart.

The town’s updating efforts have been met with scrutiny in the past — the addition of several pocket parks on Main Street in the place of dilapidated structures received intense pushback from some Madawaska residents who had been hoping for businesses — and new jobs — instead.

Picard said he hopes the new health care center will be a major step toward proving the town’s revitalization plans go beyond looks.

“I couldn’t be any more happier for the community,” Picard said. “It’s a win in any community but I think it’s a super win for us because it accomplishes a lot of things for us. It addresses a health care need, it revitalizes a shopping center, it revitalizes our downtown, it’s going to bring commerce into our downtown. There’s a lot of trickle down effects to having this business there… I can’t say enough about it and I’m super excited.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.