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Libra Foundation updates residents on making Monson an arts destination

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MONSON — Since last fall about a dozen properties, including a farm and the former Monson Elementary School that more recently served as a community center, have been purchased by the Portland-based Libra Foundation. In the months since the various buildings have been torn down or are in the renovation process for the purpose of transforming the community into an artists colony as part of its mission of making significant contributions to worthy causes across Maine.

Residents and visitors to town had the opportunity to learn more about the project from Libra Foundation Chairman and CEO Craig Denekas, who spoke at the Monson Historical Society on July 15 during the annual Monson Summerfest.

“You have hopefully seen some things going on in Monson that you have not seen going on in quite some time,” Monson Historical Society President Glenn Poole said in introducing Denekas.

“It is a bizarre project, I will acknowledge that from the start,” Denekas said, as for many decades Monson was the home of Moosehead Manufacturing before the plant closed a decade ago and the population in the 2010 Census was 686 or about half of what it was a century prior before the decline of the slate industry.

“A foundation exists to give money away,” Denekas said, saying that a foundation does not typically acquire and redevelop properties. He said he wanted to then explain the history of the Libra Foundation, which was started by Elizabeth “Betty” Noyce in 1989.

Denekas said Noyce got much of her wealth following a divorce from her husband Robert, the cofounder of co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and the Intel Corporation. Denkas said Betty Noyce began her foundation “as a vehicle for giving away this great wealth she found herself in.”

“Her great love was the state of Maine and that’s why we are involved in the state of Maine with projects that do that,” he said. Denekas said Robert Noyes’ upbringing in central Iowa instilled in him a sense of independence and self-reliance and these same traits can be found in the residents of Monson.

The Libra Foundation chairman and CEO said a model on display shows the town in an earlier period with different stores lining the downtown. “That’s not here anymore, we can’t redo that model anymore but think about what the new day will look like.”

Denekas mentioned the Libra Foundation built a pair of world-class nordic ski venues in Aroostook County, and the courses in Presque Isle and Fort Kent have been used not only by residents and visitors but have also hosted major biathlon competitions. “That was intriguing to us because we were able to take something that was a backwater and suddenly 35 countries are coming,” he said, as biathlon events are broadcast on television across Europe.

The Libra Foundation also has agricultural operations in Aroostook County as well in Gray and New Gloucester in northern Cumberland County. The chairman/CEO said a 70-plus acre farm on the North Guilford Road has been purchased by the Libra Foundation, and the plan is to grow hay on this property.

“When we were thinking of ways to approach Piscataquis County, Monson is very uniquely located,” Denekas said. He said the Appalachian Trail runs through the northern part of town, the road to Greenville and Moosehead Lake travels through the downtown, and the community is also situated on Lake Hebron.

“When we first started coming in September, it felt right,” Denekas said, saying Libra Foundation officials were welcomed warmly. “I think it really is all about the people in the community,” he added, saying a hope for the foundation’s efforts is that families will come in and plant roots in Monson.

Denekas said the investment is being made by a non-profit organization, as opposed to a government, “so it’s a bit of mindshift and I ask you to work with us on this.” He explained the final plans for the redevelopment are fluid so changes will be made along the way and all the details may not be readily available.

The former Monson General Store is being refurbished. “It may not be a store in 10-15 years, but it will still be a good property,” Denekas said.

“We really want to start with the arts as a way to attract people who are creative and will get inspired,” he said. Denekas said they hope to bring in artists through low-cost housing and studio space, as well as high-speed broadband which he said is another component of the Libra Foundation’s project and will benefit current residents.

“We have not even scratched the surface on who it might be,” Denekas said about artists coming to Monson. He said the Libra Foundation has spent time learning more from several art schools and residency programs across the state.

A question near the end of the presentation wondered about the impact of the Libra Foundation’s work in town on the tax base. “We are a non-profit and can apply for exemptions but we would like to go the other way,” Denekas responded. He said in Cumberland County the Libra Foundation pays its fair share of taxes and hopes to do likewise in Monson.

“It’s a start to do something and I will tell some of it’s not going to work,” Denekas said, asking for the community’s patience as the efforts of the Libra Foundation progresses through 2018 and then beyond.

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
THE FUTURE OF MONSON — Libra Foundation Chairman and CEO Craig Denekas, left pictured with Monson Historical Society President Glenn Poole, discusses the organization’s plans to redevelop the community into an art destination during a July 15 presentation at the Monson Historical Society. Since the fall about a dozen properties, including a farm and the community center, have been purchased by the Portland-based Libra Foundation and in the months since the various buildings have been torn down or are in the renovation process for the purpose of transforming the community into an artists colony as part of its mission of making significant contributions to worthy causes across Maine.

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