Town council postpones potential visitor center sale after lengthy discussion

3 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — The Houlton Town Council voted to table an article regarding the potential sale of the Visitor Information Center, after holding a public hearing on the issue that lasted more than an hour. 

The councilors were split evenly on whether to postpone the vote, with councilors Sue Tortello, Nate Bodenstab and Eileen McLaughlin voting to postpone, and councilors Dennis Harmon, Ed Lake and Bill McCluskey voting not to postpone. Council Chairperson Chris Robinson cast the tie-breaking vote, agreeing to postpone the issue until the next council meeting, to be held in two weeks. 

“The taxpayers have elected each one of us, and we have tried our best to represent them as best we can,” Robinson said. “In the next meeting, we will be voting on this, and you’ll have two weeks to [take] your time, gather your thoughts, and then we will as a council vote and make that decision.”

The center, located on Ludlow Road in Houlton across from Walmart, provides tourism information for travelers visiting the area from either the U.S. or Canada. It also is popular with local residents as a walking location. The town had discussed the potential sale of the center before a buyer was found in Scribner Hill LLC, a limited liability company owned by Scott Lampher, who is a part owner of the Houlton Power Sports dealership in Houlton. 

Several local residents attended the public hearing to voice their concerns and express either their support or opposition to the sale. Raymond Jay, who runs Ray’s Tree Services in Houlton and is a former town councilor, spoke against selling the center. 

“It’s just a safe, convenient place for travelers and for our local residents,” Jay said. “I just think that [the sale] needs to be reconsidered, because if we take that away, we’re not going to have a lot of people stopping here.”

Fred Grant, the chairperson of the RSU 29 school board, attended the meeting to speak in favor of the sale, saying it would support the business community in the area. 

“Your decision, when you make it for this, is going to have ramifications for years to come,” Grant said. “Not only are you considering the sale of this property to a business, but you’re also considering the support of all businesses.”

Several representatives from tourist organizations also attended, including Tony Cameron, the CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, which owned the center before deeding it to the town. Cameron said he was neither for nor against the selling of the property, but stressed the importance of tourism to the local economy. 

“Tourism is absolutely the backbone of Maine’s economy, and without tourism there really wouldn’t be a lot to attract people here,” said Cameron. “We know that when people go to visitor centers, they stay longer, they spend more money, and they often come back to live and work here.”

Steve Lyons, the director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said that they would continue to pay $40,000 to the town every year for the running of the center if the new property owner elects to keep it there. He also said they could potentially look for a new location if the visitor center is removed from the property. 

“We would also consider other more visible locations, preferably along Route 1 if possible,” Lyons said. “One way or another, there will be a center up there.” 

Correction: An earlier version said that Cameron spoke in favor of the town keeping the center. Cameron and the Maine Tourism Association spoke neither for or against the proposed sale.