The Libra Foundation has launched an effort to revitalize the town of Monson by creating a hub for artists.

The Portland-based philanthropic foundation already has purchased about 12 downtown properties and is renovating them into artists’ residences and studios. The hope is that once an artists’ community is populated, it will draw economic investment into the poorest county in Maine, Piscataquis.

Jere Michelson

“Monson is at the gateway of the Moosehead region, yet it is invisible to those who drive through there,” said Jere Michelson, president of the Libra Foundation. “We’re trying to change that.”

The foundation decided to concentrate its efforts on Monson’s downtown, which has borne the scars of shuttered factories and a declining population. The town was once home to Moosehead Manufacturing Co., a bustling furniture manufacturer that closed in 2007. According to 2015 census information, Monson had a median household income of $32,734, versus the state’s median of $49,331. And with a median age of 55.7, it is much older than the statewide median of 43.8.

Despite being nestled in one of the most beautiful parts of the state, the area’s economy has suffered. Last year, unemployment in Piscataquis County hovered around 5.5 percent, well above the state’s average of 3.9 percent. Nearly one in five residents there lives in poverty.

In its heyday, Monson was home to painters, sculptors, photographers and other artists, some of whom still live and work there, Michelson said. That’s a legacy that Libra wants to grow.

One of the buildings, a general store, is expected to be renovated in time to open this summer, he said. If all goes well, he hopes there will be artists living in their new homes next summer.

WHY MONSON

Michelson said Libra executives spend a lot of time driving around the state and take notice of depressed areas. Part of the foundation’s mission is to spur economic development where it is needed most.

It successfully revived the abandoned Maine School for the Feeble-Minded into Pineland, a mixed-use campus in New Gloucester that is home to agricultural operations, offices and recreation areas. The foundation also has developed agricultural and recreational projects in Aroostook County.

“We kept talking about ‘Who needs a push?’ ” Michelson said. Inevitably, the conversations kept coming back to Monson.

If an artists colony can take hold, then perhaps other investment will be drawn in and growth will occur organically, he said.

In addition to rehabbing the buildings and recruiting artists, Libra also is hoping to make investments in local agriculture and in recreation.

Besides being the gateway to the Moosehead region, Monson has the only downtown that is traversed by the Appalachian Trail. It is a provisioning station and boarding stop on the 2,200-mile trek from Georgia to Mount Katahdin.

“It’s right at the cusp of the 100-Mile Wilderness,” Michelson said.

Details about the agricultural and recreational investments are still being worked out, he said, but the foundation is prepared to spend about $1 million this year on the revitalization effort, and to make a multi-year commitment.

“We haven’t worked out the terms explicitly, but this will be a lasting commitment,” Michelson said.

Carol Coultas can be contacted at 791-6460 or at:

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