A view of the town of Island Falls from the west branch of the Mattwamkeag River. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

ISLAND FALLS, Maine — A century ago, the town of Island Falls was a thriving community, with a population of around 1,600 who worked at local tanneries and the National Starch and Chemical Company.

In their free time, residents were drawn to see silent films at the town’s Opera House.

Today, the factory and tanneries are gone, and the population has shrunken to about half of what it once was.

Town officials are hoping to reverse this trend by turning it into a tourist hub, taking advantage of its scenic location along the Mattawamkeag River and its proximity to Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

But in order to do so, a major overhaul in infrastructure is needed.

In particular, the town is looking to install its own public sewer system, a project that would take three to five years and has an estimated cost of $10 million.

Many of the buildings in town lack proper septic systems, and are built along the Mattawamkeag, which was recently reclassified by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as Class A water — severely limiting what can be dumped into the river.

“We have a lot of abandoned buildings, and many of these buildings cannot be occupied by more than a single family because they don’t have any septic systems large enough,” said Tony Binotto, a member of the town’s board of selectmen. “Many of them just have cesspools that limit their ability.”

The proposed plan for the Island Falls sewer system is broken up into two phases, the first phase focusing on the town’s commercial district along the U.S. Route 2 Highway, with the second phase focusing on residential areas. The cost estimation, as well as a feasibility study for the project, was done by Dirigo Engineering of Fairfield.

The effort by Island Falls provides an example of the importance infrastructure has on reversing the decline of small rural communities. The town is hoping that the recent $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate — and another potential $3.5 trillion bill that many House Democrats stated must also be passed in order to consider approving the former — could provide a valuable source of funding for the town’s sewer plans.

“Eventually, this [bill] is going to come, it has to,” Binotto said. “But if it doesn’t pass, in this window of opportunity where we have a chance to get a lot of government funding, we may lose it, and the town will then have to pay for a larger share of it than we would today.”

Jutta Beyer, the town manager for Island Falls, said that despite the high cost and likely tax increase the town would have to face in order to build a public sewer system, the project was vital for restoring the community.

“What is important to us … why the board is actually doing this …  is they have a vision for the town, and that is to revitalize the town,” she said. “They just feel that this is going to attract small businesses to their Main Street. And besides the high cost of this, they still feel that for the future, this is something that can bring this town back to where it once was.”

Already, the town’s opera house is being restored in order to provide entertainment to the community. Binotto said that if the new sewer system is put in place, other business ventures for the town could follow.

“For a recreational community, we need a motel,” he said. “We need restaurants. We need small businesses. We’re not looking for the big industry initially, although we’re hopeful that will come.”

The town is currently holding a secret ballot referendum on Tuesday to approve a preliminary engineering report from Dirigo Engineering. If approved, it will go to a full engineer’s diagram, before looking to secure funding for the project.