RICHMOND — When Les Fossel did an inspection of the Hathorn Block here years ago, he advised the prospective buyer not to take on the historic Front Street property.

His client overruled the recommendation and bought it anyway, as has at least one other optimistic yet ultimately unsuccessful developer since then.

The boarded-up windows and blocked sidewalks stand as a testament to how hard renovating historic buildings can be.

On Tuesday, Fossel bought the Hathorn Block from a New Hampshire-based limited liability company for $1, and if all goes according to plan, over the next 14 months the 14,000-square-foot building will be redeveloped into commercial space on the ground floor — the one facing Front Street — and market-rate apartments on the floors above. Plans also call for replacing a porch that was torn down decades ago, adding in garages for building tenants and developing the grounds.

“In philosophical terms, if you can take the worst of the worst and demonstrate you can make money on it, then that opens up a lot of possibilities around the state,” Fossel said Wednesday, sitting in the kitchen of his home in Alna. Fossel’s work is restoring other people’s old homes throughout Midcoast Maine through his company, Restoration Resources. He has not bought a building to renovate and restore since his first one four decades ago.

Fossel has a long history with the building. He served on the Maine Preservation board in 1997 when the Hathorn Block was put on the organization’s list of most endangered historical resources, earning the dubious distinction of being on that list longer than any other building that hasn’t been renovated or demolished.

It wasn’t always clear that the block would remain standing long enough for anyone to take on the massive rehabilitation project. Town officials were becoming concerned about the potential hazards the building posed to passers-by and were considering knocking it down.

“We were starting along that path, although not with any enthusiasm,” Victoria Boundy, Richmond’s community and business development director, said Wednesday.

The building is key to the downtown area and many people have a sentimental attachment to it.

“It was clear that when Fossel and his team came in to meet with town officials that they were more committed and knowledgeable than many others who had come before,” Boundy said.

Fossel and his development team gave a presentation at a special town meeting in August.

Earlier efforts failed, Fossel said Wednesday, because the developers had not figured out how to make the numbers work through the completion of the project.

“I have done 40 pro formas,” he said, “and I have another to go.”

He’s confident his numbers will work, thanks to two loans he’s secured, each for $110,000 from the town of Richmond’s revolving loan program and from Coastal Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit lender that specializes in rural business development. That money will pay for the project’s first phase, which is the bulk of the exterior work: restoring the windows and the brick work that will stabilize the building. Staging for that is expected to be up before the end of October, and the work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The second phase is everything else. The estimated $2 million cost will be funded by federal and state tax credits and loans.

A number of factors are working in favor of making this investment at this time and in this place.

A market study commissioned by the town shows that median household income in Richmond is growing faster than that of the state and its neighboring towns. Richmond is within commuting distance of Augusta, Brunswick, Portland and Lewiston and the midcoast. Also, the Hathorn Block offers prime views of the Kennebec River.

Fossel’s plans go hand in hand with the mixed commercial and residential use in the village area that town officials are promoting.

“It’s the best combination of uses that will keep the downtown vital,” Boundy said.

While work to stabilize the building gets underway, Boundy has her own to-do list laid out — finding possible tenants for the lower floor. The prospect list includes a dentist’s office or an urgent care facility, neither of which Richmond has. It also would be a good site for an engineering or architectural office, she said, or an arts cooperative. The riverfront location also makes the building a good prospect for businesses that cater to visitors who come by either boat or car, such as a destination restaurant, an outfitter or boat and bicycle renters.

People will be able to take a look at the building when Fossel holds a tag sale of the building’s contents to benefit a local charity. The items still have value, and he wants to see them put to good use elsewhere.

“The purpose of my life,” Fossel said, “is to organize things so everyone benefits.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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