SKOWHEGAN — Downtown property owner Jason Cooke has big plans for a historic building on Water Street — a possible bar-style eatery, a boat shop and an Airbnb-style hostel, all geared to the Kennebec River and a planned whitewater park right out his back door.

Cooke, 44, has been awarded $20,000 from Skowhegan’s downtown tax increment financing district to remodel the three-story, late 1890s building at 151 Water St.

Planners say the project would enhance other nearby economic development efforts, including Somerset County tourism and cultural projects, the Kennebec-Chaudière Corridor project, businesses including the Somerset Grist Mill and The Miller’s Table restaurant, and a Maine Huts and Trails plan to extend the trail system to other parts of the state.

“The first order of business is to get some electricity in here,” Cooke said of the building, which has brick walls, high ceilings and 38 windows. “The end result is definitely to use all three floors, all 7,200 feet of the building. It’s big.”

Cooke will take delivery of the grant in two $10,000 installments, one to be given immediately and the other once the project is 75 percent completed, depending on the result of an inspection by the code enforcement officer.

The grant will allow Cooke to leverage about $186,000 in loans and personal funds to complete the project, according to a letter to town selectmen from the Skowhegan TIF Oversight Committee. He already has invested $82,000 in the purchase of the building and the installation of a new roof, which had been vandalized, according to the oversight committee.

The building is valued for taxation at $85,700.

Jeffrey Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said the building’s proximity to the Kennebec River Gorge, where a whitewater park is planned, could be an economic boon to the whole town.

“The building itself is gorgeous, but once he gets a chance to finish off the inside, it really will be a jewel in the downtown,” Hewett said. “If Jason does the type of building that he’s talking about doing — and doing so it is an energy-efficient building — that will be one of the premiere buildings in the downtown. He’s telling me that both front and back of the building will be open to standards, so the public can come in both ways.

“I think it’s a move forward for the downtown. It’s very hard to find people that want to do major upgrades.”

Cooke bought the building, which once was home to Holland’s Variety Drug, an insurance office and Monya’s Restaurant, from local engineer Steve Govoni and his wife, Lyn.

He said the project will be undertaken in three phases, beginning with two street-level storefronts, which have floor-to-ceiling windows and two ornate columns at the door. Phases two and three would be renovating the second and third floors.

“I’m not interested in long-term rentals,” Cooke said of the upstairs units once they are finished. “I’m more interested in short-term rentals — Airbnb style or youth hostel style — a hostel style sort of thing. I like to see this building grow with the town in the way the town is moving with the renovations of the Opera House and the Run of River Project, which I’m deeply involved in.”

The objective of the $4.3 million Run of River is to create whitewater waves in three locations to attract boaters for a park-and-play destination, waves for surfers and body boarders, and a half-mile run for rafting and kayaking,

A study released in 2016 by Planning Decisions Inc. of Hallowell in conjunction with Main Street Skowhegan said the whitewater park could generate $6 million in revenue and 43 new local jobs in just the first year of operation. The project, with its man-made bumps and white-water rapids, also could produce as much as $19 million and as many as 136 local jobs in its 10th year of operation.

The “play park” for paddling, canoing, kayaking and tubing, with added four-season amenities of trails, competitions and spectator posts along the river route, also would generate an estimated $155,000 in new tax revenue from increased property values in the first year and more than $200,000 in added state income- and sales-tax revenue, according to the study.

Cooke, a spray foam insulation contractor and owner of Maine Insulation Systems, serves on the Run of River committee and was trail manager for Maine Huts and Trails from 2008 to 2016.

The Airbnb model involves online marketing for people to lease or rent short-term lodging for vacation rentals, apartment rentals, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.

Cooke said with the arrival of the projected whitewater crowd and concertgoers at the renovated Opera House, he expects a new clientele to come to Skowhegan and he wants his businesses ready for them when they come.

“There’s been some great ideas thrown out there for the two rental spots down on the lower floor,” he said.

Cooke said the Govonis put a lot of effort into making the building structurally sound when they owned it, installing a main center beam to restore the building’s solid structural state. He said the building has been vacant for several years.

Cooke lives in Cornville with his wife, Julie, founder and co-owner of Happy Knits, a yarn shop inside the renovated 1895 Somerset County Jail in downtown Skowhegan, and their two daughters.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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