AUGUSTA — Break the rules at Deer Ridge Mobile Home Park, and you’re going to have to answer to your neighbors, who are also the owners.

Not quite a year since the residents of the currently 12-unit mobile home park off North Belfast Avenue took ownership in a cooperative, the resident-owners say one thing they’ve learned is they’ve got to be tough.

“We’ve gotten very serious about following our own rules. We’re not pussy-footing around anymore,” said Beverly Chase, secretary of the board of directors of the co-op formed in February. “If you don’t abide by the rules, we take it to court. We’re not going to let people mess with us like they were before. If we’re going to make this work, everyone has to follow the rules.”

The members of the board of directors, each of them residents, have shown a new hard side by enforcing park rules, doing background checks on any new residents and booting out one former resident for being too far behind on rent. They’ve also shown a soft and cooperative side, too.

They hosted neighborhood children at a Christmas party, complete with snacks, gifts and Santa Claus, in the park’s new community building, a modest, so-far-unheated former storage building decorated with Christmas lights and converted into a community gathering spot. The building also has a sign on the wall, put up after the co-op formed, that says “We Own It!”

They planned a food drive for a local family in need. They’re planning a community garden for when spring comes, for which a resident already has built some garden boxes.

Residents worked together to fill holes in the ground above the park’s septic system leach field, a system they spent money to improve to keep it working.

And over the summer, nearly all the residents got together over a weekend to clean up the old park’s grounds, capping off the cleanup with a bonfire outside the home of Donna Dennis, the board’s vice president.

“Almost everybody helped clean up the grounds. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we found,” Chase said.

Among the finds during cleanup day was a substantial number of tires. Rather than pay to have them disposed of, residents cleaned up the tires, placed them along the park entrance and planted flowers in them.

Also discovered during the June cleanup day was what they think was the park’s original wooden sign, which they plan to fix up and mount in front of the park.

Mike Morisette, president of the park’s board, and others have worked extensively converting the former storage shed into the park’s community building. When it’s done, and heated, they plan to hold their regular board meetings there.

For now, board meetings are held around the kitchen table in Treasurer Gertrude Turcotte’s home, which is decorated with her collectible frogs and, for their December meeting, a green tablecloth with a poinsettia pattern.

To start the December meeting, Dennis asked her fellow board members to write down on a piece of paper anything that had upset them recently. Turcotte insisted nothing was bothering her because she simply doesn’t let anything bother her.

Then Dennis told them to rip up their pieces of paper with their troubles written on them.

“Anything and everything on that piece of paper does not belong in this meeting,” said Dennis, a resident of the park for about three years. “Any personal problem stays outside that door.”

It hasn’t all been rosy, as members of the group, like those of any new group, have gotten upset with each other from time to time. And some park issues haven’t been addressed as quickly as they might like. As of the December meeting, they still hadn’t hired a plow contractor for the winter, something they should have settled sooner, said Jessica Pooley, executive director of the Resident Owned Neighborhoods Association of Maine, and technical assistance specialist for Cooperative Development Institute, nonprofit groups that help residents of mobile home communities form cooperatives to buy their communities.

Pooley, who continues to serve as a mentor to the Deer Ridge Mobile Home Park Cooperative, for which the cooperative pays a fee, said despite the expected usual ups and downs, the co-op is off to a great start.

“They’re actually doing quite well,” Pooley said. “They’ve made some infrastructure improvements, some visual improvements, and they’ve improved their financial condition — reducing their delinquency and planning for future improvements. And as for the human aspect, they’re jelling really well, learning how to operate democratically and get along with each other, which isn’t always easy. And they do it all on their own, with guidance from myself and other professionals who provide them with advice.”

One resident moved out of the park since the co-op formed, taking her mobile home with her and leaving behind a pad of deteriorated concrete.

The board voted to accept a $1,200 bid to have that pad redone and brought up to current codes so it will be ready for another trailer to be brought in.

Members said they hope to fix up all the older pads in the park one at a time, as they can afford to fix them.

The co-op voted to increase rents, which went up $40, to $180 for a lot with a pad per month. Chase said that’s still pretty cheap compared to what she’s heard space in other parks goes for, which can be $250 to $400 a month.

The cooperative assumed the mortgage for the 60-acre park, on which only about 2 acres contain the mobile homes, with about $45,000 left to pay off. The park was owned previously by Homeworkers Organized for More Employment. The Orland-based nonprofit creates employment for, and provides services to, low-income individuals and families.

Chase said even skeptics, her own husband included, seem to see the value of the co-op now.

“My husband said it was never going to work. ‘You’re never going to change it,'” Chase said. “Now even he agrees things are changing.”

Turcotte said the park previously had a reputation for a lot of drug use, a reputation she said they’re working to change.

The co-op’s efforts were recognized recently at a statewide dinner of the Resident Owned Neighborhoods Association of Maine, with the Membership Engagement Award, for having the highest percentage of residents as members of the co-op, with 10 members out of 13 residents, or 77 percent.

Chase also was elected state assistant secretary of the Resident Owned Neighborhoods Association. The association, Pooley said, works with residents of six cooperative-owned communities in Maine, with two more expected to be formed in January.

“It was so wonderful. I’m not used to being recognized,” Chase said. The award, she said, will be placed on the wall of their community center building when work on the building is complete.

She credits Pooley and her organization’s help, which has included visits to other parks, workshops and advice.

“We’ve learned a lot. They teach you how to deal with difficult situations, because they’ve been at it a lot longer than we have,” Chase said. “They made it easier for us to deal with our problems here and write out our rules and regulations and given us the courage to stand by them. It helped me, because I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Resident Mary Hisler had lived in the park for about three years when the co-op formed. She now helps maintain the park, including the unpleasant work of fixing up the ground above the leach field, but she didn’t get involved with the board of directors when it formed. Nor, she admits, did she think the co-op had much of a chance of success.

Now she’s fully behind it, she said at a recent meeting of the park’s board of directors.

“At first I didn’t think it was real. I thought, ‘How could we ever do that when we’re all on a fixed income?'” Hisler said. “But now I love it. You feel like you’re a part of it, more than just paying rent. It’s like a family now, not just a place to pay rent. I like being involved.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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