05/25/17 Libra Foundation launches significant investment in Piscataquis County

BY JAMES MCCARTHY

5/25/2017

The Libra Foundation is making a significant investment in Piscataquis County, initially focusing on acquiring and developing several vacant properties in Monson.

Craig Denekas, Libra’s chairman and CEO, told Mainebiz in an interview Wednesday that the private foundation has spent roughly $1 million since last fall, buying vacant properties in Monson seen as having strong potential for restoration and reuse. Additional money is being spent on renovations, many of which are already under way.

Among them are the town’s former elementary school, which is being renovated into the Monson Community Center, and its shuttered general store, which has been gutted from top to bottom and will reopen this summer as a market selling locally grown foods as well as Pineland Farms beef, potato and cheese products.

“We’ve been up there since November, going to town meetings and meeting with local people,” Denekas said. “This is a multifaceted project in a county that, like many areas of rural Maine, is experiencing a long-term and deep economic downturn.”

He said the crux of most news stories coming out of Piscataquis County, it seemed to him and others at the foundation, is that there isn’t much that can be done about the closing of paper mills, the aging population and the brain drain of local young people leaving to find their fortunes elsewhere. “We were challenged by that,” he said. “We thought that would be the challenge we would focus on.”

Denekas said Libra’s initiative is guided by extensive meetings with local leaders, including those in nearby Greenville, which launched two years ago a grassroots effort to brand the Moosehead Lake region as “America’s Crown Jewel.”

“We met with town and county officials, business folks, artists, potters and artisans … a lot of really interesting people,” he said. “The folks up there are ready for action. We said, ‘Let’s do something.’”

From the start, he said, Libra realized it had a ready model in the two-pronged strategy it employed in Aroostook County, where it invested more than $30 million in the Maine Winter Sports Center to create outdoor recreation and economic opportunities for hosting international nordic skiing events, as well as timely investments in the Pineland Farms Potato Co. in Mars Hill (now a division of Bob Evans Farms Inc., which purchased the company for $115 million earlier this year) and the Pineland Farms Natural Meats feedlot in Fort Fairfield.

“It became clear to us that we could try to do in Piscataquis County what we did in Aroostook,” Denekas said.

The foundation settled on Monson as a community with a strong and vibrant heritage as a haven for artists, with several locally owned restaurants and other opportunities to complement Greenville’s branding campaign by enhancing Monson’s downtown as a gateway to Moosehead Lake, which is about 10 miles away. Other pluses are its location on the Routes 6 and 15 corridor (connecting a popular Canadian border crossing with points south) and as the only Maine downtown through which the Appalachian Trail passes.

Its investment strategy focuses on three sectors:

The arts

Food and agriculture

Recreational, outdoor and visitor activities.

Denekas said two local artists — painter Alan Bray and fine arts photographer Todd Watts — helped Libra understand the Monson region’s potential to build on its strong local artistic tradition. Besides Bray and Watts, the region has inspired acclaimed painters such as Marsden Hartley and Carl Sprinchorn and Berenice Abbott, one of the 20th Century’s most influential photographers.

Libra purchased the vacant elementary school/community center with the idea of converting it into artist studios and workshop areas that could be filled by young artists inspired by the region’s natural beauty. Denekas said the foundation already is talking with Maine College of Art and the University of Southern Maine about the possibility of creating residency opportunities for art students to live and work in Monson for part of their program.

The foundation’s title holding company is in the process of acquiring eight to 10 properties in the downtown corridor, with plans to renovate or replace them in order to provide high-quality modern housing on terms attractive to artists.

Erik Hayward, Libra’s senior vice president, said the foundation has already begun a complete renovation of the 100-year-old Monson General Store, which had been vacant for several years.

“We brought it down to the studs,” he said, noting that when renovations are completed it will reopen as a market similar to the one at the Pineland Farms complex in New Gloucester, featuring as much as possible foods grown locally in addition to the Pineland Farms products.

“There are plenty of young farmers and local producers, not to mention local artisans, that we could support by making their products available in that market,” he said. “It’s right on the major thoroughfare. When it reopens it’s going to be an incredible shot in the arm for the entire downtown.”

In a nod to its history, Hayward said when the market opens it will be named Monson General Store. He expects it will have 10 to 12 employees.

Another component of the food and agriculture initiative — still in the early stage — involves Libra’s purchase of a fallow farm. “We will bring it back to forage production,” Hayward said, noting that the hay could be used by Pineland Farms beef operation.

Long-range, Pineland Farms is exploring additional possibilities of growing its hay and forage crops in underutilized areas of Piscataquis and Penobscot Counties.

The third leg of the Libra’s initiative, Denekas said, involves recreational, outdoor and visitor activities.

Although in a very early planning stage, he said Libra brings to Monson its extensive experience in creating community cross country skiing and biathlon facilities in Presque Isle and Fort Kent as well as renovating downhill skiing operations in Rumford, Mars Hill and Presque Isle.

Monson’s location as the southern nexus of the 100-Mile-Wilderness portion of the Appalachian Trail offers opportunities for targeted investments, by Libra or others, in improving services geared to hikers, outdoor enthusiasts and tourists.

Luke Muzzy, president of the Moosehead Lake Regional Economic Development Corp., said the Libra Foundation’s emerging plans for Monson are a perfect complement to the “America’s Crown Jewel” branding effort for the region launched in spring 2015.

“This has the potential of totally reinvigorating Piscataquis County,” Muzzy said of Libra’s plans. “It’s totally in harmony with our values up here. Not only will it put Monson on the map for a lot of people, I can see it benefitting what we’re trying to do in Greenville. Monson is going to be a very attractive place to our target workforce population of 25-to-30-year-olds.”

Muzzy said when he was first contacted by Libra’s former president and CEO Owen Wells (who remains on the foundation’s board of trustees) he was told unequivocally that Libra’s goal was to reinvigorate Piscataquis County’s economy and create new opportunities.

“Part of our challenge here is to rewrite the story,” Muzzy said. “Can you imagine how I felt when Owen said that to me? They don’t want to dream: They want to do.”