BUCKSPORT — It almost sounds like the start of a joke: a journalist, a politician and an ice cream man walk into a bar. Then they decide to save a 160-year-old property.
OK, they may not have done it in a bar. But a trio of community-minded businessmen is the latest group to take up the cause of preserving Wilson Hall, a former seminary building that’s owned by the town and has come close to demolition several times in the last couple years.
Now leading the Save Wilson Hall effort are Bucksport Enterprise owner and editor Don Houghton, builder and state Rep. Richard Campbell (R-Orrington), and Wahl’s Dairy Port owner Larry Wahl.
After several months of meetings with residents, preservation and cultural groups and developers, earlier this month, the trio convinced the Town Council to put $30,000 into an account created by the town specifically for the preservation effort.
According to Campbell, $30,000 is the amount needed to repair Wilson Hall’s cupola and seal the building ahead of winter. While a leaky roof has caused much damage in the building, it’s still structurally sound, he said.
“Hopefully more monies will come in to keep improving it. If funds are available, the town will be paid back. If funds don’t come in, we at least have the building somewhat upgraded, so a developer can come in and look at it,” said Mayor and Council Chair David Keene, before proposing the revolving loan. “It’s a win-win for the town, and it could be a win-win for some other organizations.”
Keene clarified that the council will have to pre-approve every expenditure by Houghton, Campbell and Wahl, whom the council has designated as representatives of the preservation effort.
One councilor, Glenn Findlay, voted “no” on the loan, expressing concern about the possibility of fundraising efforts not panning out. But every other councilor was on board. Even Councilor Byron Vinton III, who described himself as very conservative with municipal spending, supported the measure.
Councilor Michael Ormsby was not at the meeting.
The council’s latest vote in the direction of demolishing the historic structure came last February, when it voted down a contractor’s offer to perform a structural analysis of Wilson Hall for $2,220.
That was before Houghton, Campbell and Wahl spearheaded the restoration and began working with local arts groups who’ve also championed the weather-worn space.
In more recent council conversations about Wilson Hall, the topic of the local paper mill, which Verso Paper Corp. will close next month, has weighed heavily. Some councilors have expressed skepticism about paying to preserve an asset that is not absolutely essential to the operation of the town when such a large taxpayer will be leaving in the next couple years.
Countering that notion last week, Councilor David Kee read aloud a letter he and Keene recently received from Michael Hurley, former mayor and current city councilor of Belfast. Just down the coast, that city has breathed life back into its Main Street after the poultry industry left it.
In the letter, Hurley cautioned Bucksport against the urge “to cut rather than spend: but spend you must. It’s like taking a loan to go to college: it doesn’t pay back for a few years. You have to INVEST in Bucksport’s future.”
Along those lines, Hurley advised the town to beautify its Main Street.
“This year, put up MORE holiday decorations,” he wrote. “A couple thousand bucks will make the yule time bright! Decorate as if Grandpa died but the kids still want Christmas.”
As Kee read the letter, several residents at the meeting murmured their approval of its message.
For now, it appears the council shares their sentiments.