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Town seeks new plan for Visitors Information Center

HOULTON, Maine — Town Councilors are pursuing options to decide the future of the Visitors Information Center, including whether the property could be subdivided to potentially increase their chances to secure a buyer for the property.

The issue came up at the May 13 council meeting, after Town Manager Marian Anderson asked for guidance on what to do with the eight-acre parcel at 28 Ludlow Road, which includes a 2,000-square-foot log building.

“A couple of folks have popped in to say they are interested in buying it,” she said. “But what would you like to do with the property?”

Seven years ago, Houlton took ownership of the center after Maine Department of Transportation officials announced they were considering closing it in order to save money. Costs to maintain the center proved to be higher than Houlton officials expected, and they decided to market it.

The center offers maps, brochures and other information about Houlton, Aroostook County and the rest of the state. In 2017, the town hired SVN/The Urbanek Group to market the property, but the contract lapsed without the building being sold.

Currently the town owns the property by virtue of a “Governor’s Deed” from the state. Therefore, it is not on the town’s tax rolls. Town Clerk Cathy O’ Leary said Monday that since the property officially belongs to the state and not the town, Houlton will not get any of the proceeds from the sale.

In the past, town leaders have expressed a desire for the purchaser to continue to maintain a tourist information center, either using the existing facility or integrating it into a new development.

Council William McCluskey asked during the recent meeting if it was possible to subdivide the property.

“We have tied the Visitors Information Center to the property,” he said. “Can we subdivide six or seven acres to sell parts of it off?”

Chair Jane Torres said her understanding is that the state wants the whole property sold off.

McCluskey said the town needed a plan for the property, which he said was just sitting there and was an “underutilized asset.”

“Nothing will happen unless you list the property,” he said.

Torres said it had been listed in the past, but nothing had happened.

“Perhaps we’ve listed it with the wrong person,” McCluskey replied.

Councilor Sue Tortello noted that a new administration has taken over in Augusta, and that perhaps the agreement with the state could be modified.

Torres advocated for the town to continue to have a Visitors Information Center, which she said was a big asset to the community.

“If the Visitors Information Center goes away, we have lost all tourism opportunities,” she said.

McCluskey disagreed, noting that the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce in Presque Isle has a visitors information center that is open 24 hours a day.

“I think it is something about as big as this desk, if you want to call it a visitors information center you can,” Torres countered, referring to Presque Isle location. “But when you have people there [at the Houlton center] who drive people to the downtown businesses, and to other places in Aroostook County, it is a big deal.”

She also said that a potential buyer came forward in the past, but he didn’t have a plan for property.

“So I don’t know if I want to give up control over what happens there,” she said. “What if the person a year down the line wants to make the location into an RV Park?… Do you want to see that? What do you want to see there?”

“We will never find anyone if we don’t get it out there and find out what is available,” McCluskey said.

Anderson ultimately decided that she would ask the state about subdividing the property.

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