December 28, 2012






Two buildings tell their tales of loss, rebirth
 by Lora Whelan


     How does the smell of roasted peanuts help with the task of revitalization? It taps into the collective memory of community members in Machias who spent many happy years shopping and socializing in the former Five and Dime building located in the heart of the downtown. In December Machias residents learned that Axiom Technologies owner Susan Corbett had bought the building through foreclosure auction. While her primary reason may have been that she didn't want to have to move her business and 16 employees yet again, she says that the ideas for the three‑story space just started flowing and began to take shape as a way for her to "pay it forward" for all the support she has received from the community and during her lifetime.
     The story of the restored Five and Dime will be one of community participation and inclusion if Corbett has anything to do with it. She has asked Kehben Grier of the Beehive Collective and Hillary Savage, a printmaker and assistant editor at the Machias Valley News Observer, to be responsible for hammering out a use for the third-floor space. While the details need to be finalized, Corbett is donating the top floor of 3,000 square feet for community arts and culture uses. The first and second floors house her offices as well as rental space for the Downeast Coastal Conservancy and one other renter she hopes to be able to announce in January.
Saying goodbye to Calais courthouse
     While Machias celebrates the rebirth of one of its anchor buildings, the residents of Calais have had to say goodbye to one of theirs. The old Calais courthouse, located on Church Street, and unused for at least 20 years, was demolished in December by its owner, FairPoint Communications. Citing more than one engineering study that showed progressive deterioration, the company made the decision after delaying demolition to accommodate the requests of Rep. Joyce Maker and city representatives to have more time to study options. The old courthouse adjoined FairPoint's larger building, which houses the company's regional communications network. In 2008 Fairpoint acquired Verizon properties all over the state, including the courthouse in Calais.
     Jeff Nevins, FairPoint public relations manager for Maine and New Hampshire, says, "No one wants to tear an old building down. There's an emotional attachment." But, he explains, the 20 years of neglect had left the building in poor condition. The roof was unsafe, and a decision had to be made before the winter began. When FairPoint was approached earlier in the year by city leaders, the engineering team went back to the building. Nevins explains, "We went in and did another review." At that point the wall that abutted the two buildings had begun to buckle. "We had to take action," he says for network security reasons. "A wet snow load could have caused collapse." As part of the engineering plan, environmental hazards like asbestos were removed prior to the demolition.
      Buildings that house regional communications network systems are critical to the day‑to‑day running of too many businesses, households and municipal operations to be put at risk. Taking down the courthouse decreased the risk of its potential collapse having an impact on the adjoining network building, Nevins says. "We tried to listen to folks. Then we looked at their concerns and balanced them with our concerns. We're more than willing to listen, but ultimately we had to make a decision."
     He adds, "We fully understand why people want to keep old buildings." He adds on a personal note that he's learned the importance of communities inventorying and prioritizing their historic buildings. "It's like anything -- planning prevents a lot of problems." FairPoint has no plans to rebuild or sell the space that is now vacant.
     Calais Assistant City Manager Jim Porter notes that the city's economic development committee, planning board, Calais in Motion and the Calais Downtown Revitalization Coalition will meet with the council in January to look at the city ordinance for strategies to better meet the challenges of preserving the city's architectural heritage. "It's a shame. It was an important building." However, he says, the city had no reason to doubt FairPoint's engineering studies. "We'd known for a few years that there were issues. FairPoint let us know." He explains that the city had no "appetite" to buy it, and the group Calais in Motion "couldn't find the resources" or a buyer to take it on. "It came to removing it."

Planning for future of the Five and Dime
     Planning is just what Grier and Savage intend to do with the Machias community. "We can move slowly enough that it's exactly what the community needs, not just tacked on," explains Grier. Corbett will be paying for the third floor's renovations and upgrades to meet code. The previous owners had started the work, with major gutting having taken place, but with tin ceiling, moldings and other architectural salvage kept. New studs are up, and insulation and some plumbing are in place. But there's still much work to be done before it can be approved for public use. The two women will look at examples of community arts spaces around the country, but they will take "the opportunity to be respectful of the deep roots here."
     Savage brings up the smell of roasted peanuts. A social network site dedicated to Machias history has been awash with memories of the building, including the delicious smell that "pulled people in." Grier says, "We're figuring out how we can honor that the story is still intact in that building and tap into what's already there." Not breaking that chain is important they say.
     Luckily, the owner who ran the Five and Dime for 50 years is still in Machias. He was not the owner at the time of foreclosure. He lives right down the block. Grier and Savage can't wait to meet with him to talk about the building's history and future.
     While it will take many community discussions to structure how the space will be used and organized, what the two women do know is that it will not be live/work space. Nor will it be another nonprofit. They do not want to duplicate what's already out there. They do want to fill in some of the missing pieces in the community. For instance, some possibilities they list are: arts‑based after‑school activities; senior center; arts space for community members and possibly for the nurturing of traditional arts and crafts; a print shop; and a room for alternative health practices.
     On the top floor there are over 12 rooms, with windows in just about every one, including from a cupola. One floor below, Tom Boutureira, executive director of Downeast Coastal Conservancy, says, "We're so excited to have Axiom as the owners. There's lots of energy." He adds that to have a local owner who is a "regional powerhouse from town" is the best possible scenario.
     Corbett sums up her role. "What I could have done was build out four professional spaces. Or I could take the space and do something wonderful with it." As a business person, she says, "I get it that I have a social mission." And maybe even more importantly, her adult children couldn't be happier with their mother's decision to pay it forward. Corbett adds with a smile, "Your temperature gauge is how your children judge you."

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