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Libra Foundation projects transforming Piscataquis County

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — Downtown Monson looks much different compared to several years ago through the efforts of the Libra Foundation, and a portion of West Main Street in Dover-Foxcroft is also undergoing a transformation thanks to the Portland-based organization.

The work that has turned Monson into an arts destination and the forthcoming Piscataquis County Ice Arena — the $5.5 million facility is being funded by the Libra Foundation and will be managed by Foxcroft Academy — were the subjects of an AARP Commons Coffee Talk with Facilities Manager Lucas Butler on the morning of April 30 at The Commons at Central Hall.

“About two and a half years ago Libra came on a little road trip to Piscataquis County and stumbled upon Monson,” Butler told the several dozen attendees. “They then did some research on what makes Monson, Monson.”

Libra Monson Piscataquis County Ice Arena

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
FORTHCOMING PISCATAQUIS COUNTY ICE ARENA — Construction is underway at the Piscataquis County Ice Arena on West Main Street in Dover-Foxcroft. The $5.5 million facility is being funded by the Libra Foundation and the arena operations will be managed by Foxcroft Academy. The Libra Foundation has also transformed downtown Monson into an arts destination with artists from around the world coming to the community for four-week residencies.

Butler said Libra Foundation officials knew the Appalachian Trail goes through the community on the shores of Lake Hebron. Research informed them of the artist history of the community connected to the numerous immigrants who came to work in the quarries.

“In that two years we have gone from just one property in Monson, Maine to roughly 30 and some land,” he said as now the Libra Foundation properties have created artists’ residencies and other arts program. Butler explained many properties were purchased and have been converted into art spaces and living quarters and businesses, including larger downtown buildings housing the Monson General Store and a gallery.

Another building still in the renovation stage is over Lake Hebron, and this will be the site of seven upstairs writing studios and space downstairs for education program with local schools.

“It’s been a challenge but we have risen to it,” Butler said. He said about 20 local contractors have worked on the project.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is we took a group of down on their luck woodsmen and turned them into quality contractors and that’s totally true,” Butler said.

He said Monson Arts has three employees, Artistic Director Stuart Kestenbaum, Program Manager Dan Bouthot and Administrative Assistant Susan DeLola.

Since last June 105 artists have taken part in four-week residencies. “We will be hosting nine residencies of 10 this year,” Butler said.

“We have had people as close as Greenville and as far away as Iran,” he said, with some other artists hailing from Argentina and France. “We give them a top-notch place to stay for 28 days, all their meals are served at the Quarry Restaurant. They get a $1,000 stipend plus a working studio.”

“Amongst the arts program we have tremendous support so far, the artists don’t want to leave they want to stay,” Butler said, as they are given tours of area attractions during their time in the region. When asked he said many of the residents hear about Monson through word of mouth.

“Our responses from our visiting residencies has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “I have never read a negative review.”

In order for the artists to share their works with the world, the Libra Foundation has partnered with Premium Choice to improve broadband connectivity in Monson. “With that fiber optic we can host unlimited speeds,” Butler said. “The reason it is so important is the way artists market, these photos are extremely high resolution.”

Shifting his remarks south on Route 15 to the Piscataquis County Ice Arena, Butler said the Libra Foundation is working with the Canam Group. “They provided us with a steel building and architectural design, and as of today we are laying in the first heating pipes,” he said, adding 25-30 contractors are inside at any given time.

“We are, fingers crossed, having that arena up and running in August or July,” Butler said.

“We will have room for 150 spaces in front of the arena and we will have space on the side of the building for a dozen buses,” he said.

“It will have a pro shop, rentals, everything you need to be successful on the ice,” Butler said. “The building is primarily ice, however ice is really expensive to make in the summer so we are building the building to be an event center. We want to be sure to give ourselves the flexibility to do something else in there in the summer.”

A question inquired about making ice hockey affordable for area youth. Butler said, “We are committed to get those youth sports up and running,” mentioning equipment swaps as an example. He said the Libra Foundation’s Nordic Heritage Center in Aroostook County has operated under the premise of working to get many youth on skis.

“We have a dedicated group of hockey enthusiasts in this area who have taken the reigns,” and Butler said the Penquis Youth Hockey Association is already involved with the Piscataquis County Ice Arena.

He was asked about a Libra Foundation farm on the North Guilford Road in Monson. Butler said not much is transpiring on the 300-acre parcel at the moment.

“What’s holding us back right now on those farms are the soil qualities,” he said, but measures are being taken to improve the farms so crops such as corn, other vegetables and oats and grains could be planted.

Butler said the Libra Foundation has a large dairy and produce operation at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester as well as a cheese-making center in Bangor. “We are on track to make one million pounds of cheese at that facility this year,” he said.

The Monson Arts Center, which previously had been the town-owned Monson Community Center, Butler said is currently being gutted to be repurposed as a dental clinic and medical facility in conjunction with Northern Light C.A. Dean Hospital.

“We will have a dental practice with three chairs,” he explained as dentists will be visiting and staying in nearby Libra Foundation lodging. He said the current Northwoods Healthcare operations would move up Main Street from the existing location to the arts center, which could be ready to open for the new medical purpose in August or September.

“The idea is that you would have a string of clinics,” Butler said, mentioning the current medical facilities in Greenville and Sangerville.

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