Wealthy Group Buys Heart of a Poor Maine Town to Build an Artist Colony

May 27, 2017

MONSON, Maine — A nonprofit foundation bought a huge chunk of this small rural town and plans to spend as much as $10 million revitalizing it.

The Libra Foundation has since October spent $750,000 buying a dozen houses, a community center and a general store along Monson’s main drag — as well as a farm on North Guilford Road, said Erik K. Hayward, Libra’s senior vice president.

The plan is to convert the houses into artist residences and the center into studio space. The store would sell art and produce from farms in Piscataquis County, which the U.S. Census Bureau rated as Maine’s poorest in 2015.

The foundation’s goal is ambitious:  to save a dying industrial town known for slate quarries and furniture-making with a dramatic infusion of cash into the arts, agriculture and eventually recreation.

“A lot of the driving force for us is that we want to help that area,” Hayward said Tuesday. “The place has amazing potential but it happens to be in the poorest county in Maine. There’s a lot that can be done there, and we’re not just looking at Monson.”

The investment coincides with Libra’s purchase of the former Grants Dairy plant in Bangor, which Libra says will bring as many as 50 jobs to The Queen City.

Monson leaders said that most residents applaud the idea, but many have been skeptical of Libra, which has not laid out a specific multi-year plan for the project.

“I find myself apologizing on behalf of the town of Monson because we should be a little more grateful to the Libra Foundation,” said Rebekah Anderson, co-owner of Lakeshore House, a pub and restaurant along South Main Street. “They could go spend their money in another small, dying town and not choose to spend it here.”

But Libra will need to work hard to make Monson competitive with other tourist towns, said Todd Gabe, a University of Maine economics professor and student of the state’s economy for 18 years.

“You have to catch people’s eyes,” Gabe said. “When people think of Maine, they think of the coast and lobsters. Ever since I have been here, there have been attempts to move tourists from the coast to other parts of the state.”

How Libra works

Best known for owning Pineland Farms Creamery, a nationally known Maine cheesemaker, Libra has $150 million in cash and has invested $175 million in Maine over the last 27 years, Hayward said.

Typically, the foundation selects a depressed area, buys its stagnant cultural and economic assets and spends decades revitalizing them. Then it moves on.

In New Gloucester, it bought a huge abandoned psychiatric hospital campus — once known as the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded — and spent $110 million creating Pineland Farms Inc., which now has 800 workers. Libra spent $30 million in Aroostook County revitalizing a potato-processing plant — which employs more than 200 people — and turning The County into an Olympic-caliber skiing destination with three recreation centers. A volunteer-run ski slope was its inspiration.

Libra was founded in 1989 by Elizabeth Noyce, the ex-wife of the co-inventor of the microchip, who used her divorce settlement for philanthropy designed to spur growth.

Noyce created Maine Bank and Trust Co. in 1991 with an investment that eventually doubled. She saved the J.J. Nissen bakery by buying it for $15 million. By her death in 1996, she had donated some $75 million herself and gave $225 million to Libra. At the time, it was the largest individual transfer to a foundation in state history.

But Libra hasn’t always been successful. It created the Portland Public Market as a European-style produce venue in 1998, but closed it after eight years. Its leaders acknowledged leaving behind some unhappy people in 2011, when it stopped funding a summer camp program in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, after contributing $3.5 million annually for more than a decade.

“We try things, and if it doesn’t appear to be working, we take another look at it,” said Hayward, who expects that flexibility to be a significant feature in Monson’s development.

Fort Kent Town Manager Donald Guimond said he thinks that Libra’s Aroostook investments will survive even though Libra has largely moved on.

“Some people complain that they [Libra] are not giving as much as they used to,” Guimond said. “But to expect a neverending contribution to a community, from Libra or anyone else, is unreasonable.”

Why it picked Monson

Libra picked Monson in part because of the town’s proximity to natural attractions — like Moosehead Lake and the Appalachian Trail — and its history with the arts. Berenice Abbott, described in her International Photography Hall of Fame biography as “one of the most independent, determined and respected photographers of the 20th Century,” lived in Monson for decades.

“The idea is rural residencies,” Libra Foundation CEO Craig Denekas said. “The artists have always congregated along the coast, but the attractions of rural Maine are equally interesting.”

Monson could also use the investment.

Census estimates rate Piscataquis County as the poorest in Maine, with 19.1 percent of its population in poverty. Monson has a 9.9 percent unemployment rate and 11.2 percent live below the poverty line, Town Manager Fred Krone said.

Some residents can’t afford vehicles, which leaves them “essentially trapped in town,” Krone said.

Once prosperous for its quarries — Monson slate is part of President John F. Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery — the town lost 125 jobs when Moosehead Manufacturing Co., a 60-year-old furniture plant, closed in 2007.

“Monson has just been devastated,” said John Tatko, general manager of Sheldon Slate Production, a surviving slate manufacturer. “In my whole lifetime it’s just been going downhill.”

Libra acknowledged Monson’s ills by agreeing to pay property taxes despite, as a nonprofit, not being required to. It also did the town a favor by buying buildings “almost too overwhelmingly bad for a normal investor to consider rehabbing,” Krone said.

But will Monson be an arts magnet? Krone thinks so.

Tourists already visit Moosehead Lake, 15 miles away, via Route 15. Monson is one of only three Maine municipalities to have a downtown leg of the Appalachian Trail. It has Lake Hebron, its granite industry past and its arts history to attract visitors, he said.

“It’s not just the arts. You’ve got recreation, the beginning of the 100-Mile Wilderness, which is a big draw, and agriculture, which is an underutilized resource,” Krone said. “I think they have the right cluster of activities to move Monson forward.”

But the competition will be strong, said Gabe, who wrote a book on economic development.

“A lot of people try to use the arts,” Gabe said. “A lot of coastal communities are seasonal, so if places along the coast aren’t staying open year-round, given their volume [of visitors], I wouldn’t expect that to happen in Monson.”

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.