UNITY — A rustic inn, a bustling brew pub, trails near a shining lake and elsewhere that are easy to navigate, an artisan center and a well-designed website for marketing.

All that and more could be coming to Unity, and a group hopes it could be the right mixture to make the Waldo County town of about 2,000 people a prime destination in central Maine.

That vision has been laid out by the town Economic Development Committee, which, with funding from the Unity Foundation, hired GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit that facilitates discussions within communities and helps connect them with experts across the country to get projects done.

Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart, said the organization now will work with the committee to see where it can provide the most help, such as connecting people to experts and relevant forums.

After the first meeting, on Feb. 19, Unity residents broke into groups to focus on specific projects that would help make the town a destination. The five projects people voted to focus on were lodging, a brew pub, an artisan center, branding, and the town’s lake and trails.

Emily Newell, chairman of the selectmen, said the town is going to pursue all five projects, but more work must be done before anything becomes concrete.

“I see them all sitting down with Economic Development Committee, who’s running this process … and (refining) exactly what it is that they need help with,” Newell said.

Some need a business model, while others need money.

While Newell said she wouldn’t call any of them “not feasible at this point,” she added that “there’s only so much that the town has for resources to invest.”

The ideas for branding and improving trails will be the easiest to implement, Newell said, but those for lodging and a welcome center will require some kind of financing for the buildings.

At a meeting Monday evening, about 30 residents listened to the groups present their ideas and voted on what to attack first. The votes went heavily to the idea of lodging, what people said could be called “The Doctor’s Inn.” The building envisioned as the inn is the former home of the Dr. Harrison Aldrich on Main Street.

Jon Wadick, a member of the Unity Business eXchange, presented the idea on behalf of the lodging group. The business exchange is where the talk about a lodging solution first started, Newell said.

Wadick proposed converting a large house and barn currently on Main Street, which he said has a “motivated seller,” into a 15-room hotel that would also hold a restaurant and pub, and possibly a micro-brewery. The rooms would be decorated with local artists’ wares that could be sold, the restaurant would be farm-to-table style and the basement could be soundproofed so a stage for bands could accompany the pub. The next steps in the process are a building inspection and appraisal, which would cost $1,000 to $3,000, Wadick said. The most difficult step would be finding an investor who could support the project.

“The Doctor’s Inn would be truly a cornerstone of making Unity a destination,” Wadick said.

The lodging project would be the most complex for the town to handle, Newell said. Organizers will have to calculate parking, get permits because of the proximity of Sandy Stream, and figure out whether the property can be three stories, as Unity has a height restriction of two stories for fire safety reasons. Zoning also could pose a problem.

“Some locations that have been coined as ‘good for a hotel’ are not actually zoned for retail,” Newell said. “We may be looking at a change or proposing a change that would allow lodging in places it normally wouldn’t be.”

For the other projects, such as branding, Newell said the process would go much more quickly.

Money for the projects, or parts of the projects, would come out of the town’s tax increment financing, or TIF, district, which is managed by the Economic Development Committee. A TIF district shields the increased tax revenue the town receives from developments such as the local Amish settlement, Unity Food Hub and grocery store. If the revenue wasn’t shielded, it would be counted against the town for county and school taxes.

The town gets about $60,000 to $70,000 annually from TIF revenue, which must be spent on economic development, and has about eight years left in its agreement with the state.

Other proposed ideas included the Maker’s Space and Visitor Center, which would serve multiple purposes, said Gail Chase, treasurer for the Unity Barn Raisers. The group’s idea was to have a visitor center with information for nonresidents, as well as a “mini-Common Ground Fair under one roof” that would be open year-round. The space would provide room for artisans to sell their works as well as hold classes for children and adults.

“It’s about “building our local assets — and we have them here, so why not showcase them?” Chase said.

The group that focused on Lake Winnecook and the many trail systems that pass through Unity spoke about organizing the myriad information and providing better guidance to those who don’t know their way around the town.

“We already have the lake. … We need to find a way to leverage it,” said Ellen Batchelder, a member of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust stewardship committee as well as the Friends of Lake Winnecook. “The beauty of having a lot of groups is that we have a lot to start with, but the disadvantage of that is maybe we have a lot of volunteers who are spread a little thin.”

Batchelder proposed funding better signage, creating trailheads with parking and providing equipment rentals for kayaking or canoeing.

The branding group created a mock-up website that could be used for tourism purposes to get people to visit Unity. Jenny deHart said that creating a specific brand for Unity would give the town “consistency” when marketing events and provide a “backbone” for other projects.

Alicyn Smart, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, said the group will be looking for money for a brand development consultation, which will cost about $5,000. The website would cost about $300, and someone to handle the marketing year-round on a part-time basis could cost about $10,000.

“Unity needs a brand to have a voice. To have a voice, people need to hear you,” Smart said.

Joe Saltalamachia, a member of the Economic Development Committee, echoed the need for a brand.

“I really think branding is extremely important,” Saltamalachia, who also works as admissions director at Unity College. “When we finally took on a good branding project at the college (five years ago), that was the best thing we could’ve done. … None of this flies without the branding.”

The group working on a brew pub also spoke, but that group is not seeking help from GrowSmart Maine or the town. The project is past the planning stages, they said, and is a private investment at this point.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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