Three businesses nearly destroyed by a fire at the Houlton International Airport in September are back in business.
Located at the Houlton Industrial Park in World War II-era hangars, all three businesses were either underinsured or not insured, according to the owners. So breathing life back into the businesses they had started from scratch was exceptionally challenging.
All are back up and running, although two did not return to the airport location.
Tiny Homes of Maine resettled in an 11,000-square foot building in Dyer Brook, about 22 miles from its previous location. HSC Auctions got a new name, Pink Gavel Auctions, and a new location in downtown Houlton and Family Roots remains at the airport location.
These businesses have all been important to Houlton’s economic growth for many years and losing even one is a loss to the community, according to town officials.
“Would we like to have them here in Houlton, absolutely. We are sorry to see her go,” said Nancy Ketch, Houlton director of community and economic development, referring to Corinne Watson, who co-owns Tiny Homes with her husband Tom Small. “They suffered a hardship with that fire and that’s not easy. They lost a lot of stuff, so they want to keep moving forward and I hope they are able to.”
Watson said prior to the fire they had been looking for a new space for quite a while because the space at the airport was not heated and that made working in the winter challenging.
“We had grant funding to have a new facility built in Houlton, but it was just dragging out and taking forever and didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We found a place and we were trying to get everything in order to move,” Watson said. “We actually had all our stuff packed up and ready to move. After the fire, we didn’t have anything to move but at least we had a place to go.”
If they did not have the Dyer Brook location already lined up, Watson said they would have been out of business forever with winter coming.
In addition to most of their tools, equipment and supplies, they had four tiny homes, two pretty much done and two in process, destroyed in the fire.
Insurance was very difficult, and they had to fight to get a payout, she said.
“We had to learn the hard lesson that we were superiorly underinsured. It only covered about half of what we needed for replacement and that kind of set us back a bit starting over,” Watson said.
People rallied to help.
A friend, who owns OPBOX (Opportunity Box), a Maine company that produces modular structures, did a tool drive for them because their tools and equipment were not covered by the insurer.
Additionally, the town of Dyer Brook was accommodating.
The town manager and the selectboard are very welcoming and super helpful,” she said. “Just being in a smaller community I know Houlton is small, but this is even smaller and people are very excited to have us here.”
The company brought back their build crew this month and they are back on track and ready to take orders to build.
“Everyone was really positive. We are trying to retrofit the new building to our needs, but it is better than where we were because of being able to heat the entire space and working through the winter is going to be a lot better,” she said. “We are back to work and starting over. Everyone really likes this new space we are in and the positivity and the momentum is really good.”
John and Emma Willigar, who have owned Family Roots for eight years, lost nearly everything and the entire back wall to their building was gone.
With the help of the Houlton Fire Department, the Willigars saved most of the product in the shop and one crop of plants almost ready for harvest, but another large crop was destroyed by the intense heat.
“We lost pretty much everything,” John Willigar said the day after the fire. “But I think we’ll be OK.”
The Willigars’ business, like many marijuana dispensaries, was not insured because federal drug laws vary from state laws, John Willigar said.
With the help of his brother Jesse Willigar, the building has been restored and they open their doors again on Friday, Dec. 1.
The building is closed back up, they ran new water, electricity, painted and rebuilt everything, he said.
“It’s been a pretty uphill battle, but things are back to normal,” he said. “We had a lot of support, I wouldn’t say from the town, but from our patients. It’s been a long time coming for sure.”
The marijuana plants are doing well and they were able to save quite a few strains because of the Houlton Fire Department, he said.
Starting Friday, Family Roots will be open at the regular location, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays are by appointment only.
Amy Carmichael, who co-owned HSC Auctions with Matt Carr, bought out Carr after the fire and now owns the auction business. She changed the name to Pink Gavel Auctions and has moved temporarily into a small space at 11 Broadway St. in Houlton.
But she is actively looking for a much larger space to house all the antique items as well as a retail space, she said.
Carmichael was devastated by the fire.
“Everything we had been working for was gone,” she said. “We were the fullest we have ever been. These pieces were so old and in beautiful pristine condition.”
They had built their inventory before winter and just recently cleaned out multiple estates. There were enough pieces and artwork for auctions through next May. The fire destroyed everything, she said.
So she started over.
“I’ve been working my butt off to get it going and get it where it needs to be,” she said. “I had a lot of help from family and friends and Northern Maine Development Commission.
One of the hardest things is rebuilding and acquiring inventory in the winter, she said.
The auction house is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and she is already running her weekly online auctions that end every Sunday.
Still, the sting of such a loss remains.
“It’s still kind of fresh in my mind, but this keeps me so busy, So I focus on getting this up and running,” she said. “It’s a terrible loss but I see a bright future.”