Thursday, June 29, 2017

Monson, Maine: the making of an arts colony?

My husband grew up in a down-at-the-heels, gritty town in Vermont – the antithesis of the post-card pretty white shingled houses with black shutters, white steepled Congregational Church, white snow covered mountains as backdrop sort of town that we tend to associate with the state. No, Bellows Falls may have had a somewhat pretty setting on the Connecticut River, but it’s always been plenty dreary.

And yet…

It does manage to have a nice indie bookstore, an upscale Italian restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in a more cosmopolitan setting, and a lively music scene. Property values are cheap, and the BF culture is sustained by artsy migrants who were priced out of the big city. Plus there’s good skiing nearby.

So I do know that there’s hope for small crumbling post-industrial New England places that want to remake themselves. And I do hope that Monson, Maine, becomes one of them.

Poor Monson, Maine. It sounds like it’s in worse shape than Bellows Falls ever was. It’s a:

…fading Central Maine town that has shrunk to the point that it doesn’t have a school. Or a stoplight. (Source: Boston Globe)

Well, my husband’s grammar school (St. Charles) may be closed, but Bellows Falls still has an elementary, middle, and high school (Jim’s alma mater). And some stoplights.

Than again, Bellows Falls (pop. 3,000) is about quadruple the size of Monson.

Anyway, there’s a foundation that’s looking to remake Monson as an artist colony.

Abandoned storefronts, run-down single-family homes, even a 70-acre farm have been snatched up in a buying spree by the wealthy Libra Foundation, which plans to turn Monson into a hub for artists by offering affordable studios, lofts, apartments, and exhibition space.

This, of course, raises the Field of Dreams Question: if they build it, will they come?

“It’s risky, risky as all get-out,” said Craig Denekas, chief executive officer at the foundation. “But I would say a foundation couldn’t use its dollars in any better way, because somebody has got to do something.”

Monson’s main industry used to be slate quarrying. Then furniture-making, which went out a decade ago. So they can use a boost.

But Monson’s pretty isolated. It’s over an hour’s drive from Orono, where the University of Maine is located. (Bellows Falls, on the other hand, is only a half an hour from the hip and happening city of Brattleboro.) 

Today most visitors are hikers along the Appalachian Trail, where Monson is the last stop before the “100-Mile Wilderness,” an isolated trek through some of the most inhospitable and rugged terrain in the East.

And my bet is that most of those through-hikers don’t spend a lot of money in Monson. (Not that there’s much in Monson to spend a lot of money on.)

To many in Monson, the artists can’t come soon enough. Construction workers have been busy at several locations along the town’s main drag, building a general store and apartments, razing others. Libra has purchased 13 properties so far, with more expected, as well as the farm, a few miles from the town center…

But drawing artists to this remote landscape, with its long, bone-chilling winters, is a tricky proposition. Successful creative hubs tend to be driven by artists and grow organically in a desirable location with affordable rents.

Well, I can see the affordable rent part of the equation, but “desirable location”? I love Maine – really and truly – but I don’t think of Central Maine as exactly desirable.

Still, I wish them luck. There may not be enough artists in the world to revive every passed-by town in New England, but maybe Monson will be one of the lucky ones. In the Libra Foundation, it does have a deep pockets backer.

It’s no Bellows Falls, but stranger things have happened…

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