04/25/17 Libra Foundation working to make Monson an arts destination

By Stuart Hedstrom, Piscataquis Observer • April 25, 2017

Downtown Monson is undergoing a transformation thanks to the Portland-based Libra Foundation as the non-profit organization has purchased several buildings and is in the process of replacing these structures as part of its mission of making significant contributions to worthy causes across Maine.

“A plan we have been thinking about for five to six months is starting to come to fruition,” Libra Foundation CEO Craig Denekas said during an April 18 meeting of the Piscataquis County Commissioners. “We like to get involved in business because we like the jobs and benefits.”

Denekas said starting last fall representatives of the Libra Foundation began spending time in the Monson area to learn more about the region. He said the foundation looks to provide its support for projects based on agriculture, public recreation and the arts.

Denekas said the arts is where the Libra Foundation would like to place its focus in Monson. “We think there is great potential and we would like to invest,” he said. “We would like to make investments in real estate, such as making buildings attractive to artists.

“We would like to build good, modern housing,” with this space available at little or no cost.

He said the Monson Community Center was sold to the Libra Foundation after a vote at last month’s town meeting. “We thought that would make an ideal center for work and studio space,” Denekas said.

“We think this is a great place to do investment,” he said. “It jumps into a project that otherwise would not happen.

Artist Alan Bray of Sangerville, who grew up in Monson, said economic development based on the arts has been used elsewhere in Maine to bring new residents and business to town. “It is just exciting to see this opportunity and create this opportunity,” he said.

Bray mentioned the vote at town meeting was made by a count of 79 to 4. “That says a lot to me about the excitement that’s involved in this.” He said the future art possibilities will combine with Lake Hebron and the Appalachian Trail to help make Monson a destination for visitors.

“We have seen a long decline in Monson,” said former resident Glenn Poole, who is the president of the Monson Historical Society. He said the population — the count was 686 in the 2010 Census — is about half of where it was a century prior with the decline of the slate industry and the shuttering of Moosehead Manufacturing.

“Seeing something like this happen is unbelievable,” Poole said.

Former Town Manager Lucas Butler, who now works for the Libra Foundation, said, “We have torn down two houses with plans in the works for each of the lots.” He said the former Monson General Store has been purchased by the Libra Foundation and is being refurbished as part of the project.

“As you come into Monson, most of our buildings are on the left,” Denekas said about the lake side of Route 15. “It will be 10 or 12 separate acquisitions.”

“We are willing to work with you in any way possible,” County Manager Tom Lizotte said. “You look at places in Maine and the arts have really lead to a renaissance.”

“With the village backing up to the shores of Hebron Lake, there is real potential there and we are glad the Libra Foundation sees the potential there,” Lizotte said.

Poole said the Appalachian Trail Visitors’ Center will be relocated from the Monson Community Center to just down the street at the Monson Historical Society. “They will be open seven days a week for visitors,” he said, as hikers will continue to visiting downtown Monson before embarking on the 100-Mile Wilderness.

“You will see some new buildings, but this will grow internally,” Denekas said.