SKOWHEGAN — One business owner’s unique, outside-the-box thinking is driving a new business venture downtown that, in collaboration with other businesses, promises positive outcomes for the town and surrounding areas in the coming years.

Maine Grains, housed at the former Somerset County Jail at 42 Court St., announced earlier this week that Amber Lambke, CEO and co-owner, is leading a new real estate company, Land & Furrow LLC, and has purchased the former Kennebec Valley Inn property in downtown Skowhegan from the Somerset Economic Development Corp.

The plan is to develop a property that will house a slew of enterprises — housing, entrepreneurs looking to grow their business and a home for the farmers market during the winter months, with the potential for much more.

Land & Furrow — whose name refers to the grooves and high points on a mill stone — was created after Lambke recognized that the business ownership and operational models of the enterprise were still coming together.

“It just seemed fitting while we work to identify the structure that gets the building built, but also the structure that could be put in place to serve the community in perpetuity,” Lambke said.

Just last week, Maine Grains announced the business has hired its first full-time, in-house baker, which will allow the The Miller’s Table at Maine Grains to expand its cafe offerings.

Lambke said her twin sister, Heather Kerner, has also launched a new pizza dough company — The Good Crust — at the grist mill.

A rendering of the vision Maine Grains’ Amber Lambke has for the downtown Skowhegan lot once occupied by the Kennebec Valley Inn with the Strand Cinema opposite. Animate, Inc. for Land & Furrow LLC

Sales at Maine Grains have skyrocketed during the pandemic and the business earned praise from The New York Times, pointing out the company’s way of doing business.

The gristmill started in 2007 with the first Kneading Conference, where the idea of a Maine Grain Alliance first evolved. Maine Grains Grist Mill also houses a radio station, yarn shop, a full sit-down restaurant and a creamery. The company has grown continuously since the formation of the Maine Grain Alliance in 2012 and has continued to thrive during the pandemic.

In mid-March, when the pandemic first hit and panic sent shoppers rushing to the grocery store to buy flour, employees at Maine Grains buckled down and worked to keep their products stocked and available to distributors. Their way of doing business, a collaborative model for rural areas, was praised as representing a “radical vision: the return of true agricultural localism.”

“Amber took a chance on the grist mill and invested in Skowhegan several years ago, and now she’s doing it again —  which is amazing,” said Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan. “It’s so exciting to think about what that vacant lot will be and what it will mean for the community in the coming years. We truly have a lot to be proud of here in Skowhegan.”

The parking lot outside of the grist mill has also been home to the Skowhegan Farmers Market, which has been around for about 25 years. The quandary has always been where the market can operate during the winter months. For the last few seasons, it’s been housed at Boynton’s Greenhouse, just up the road on Route 201.

“(Boynton’s Greenhouse) has served them OK, but we have a symbiotic relationship with a lot of the businesses here,” Lambke said. “For years we’ve brainstormed with the town and others how we can solve this winter’s farmers market location issue.”

A few years ago, she said, they explored the idea of placing a roof over the parking lot as a way to protect the vendors during the winter months.

“In the end, I’m glad we waited, and I think we can blend the desire for a large, open space for them in a new building next door.”

Lifting the project off the ground

Lambke said that in the last year, their organization was the recipient of a grant from the Cummings Fund, which allowed them to explore the feasibility of a future building in the adjacent lot with all of the necessary partners and to also hear an updated perspective on the growth plans of some of the food businesses in Skowhegan and what their space needs are.

Amber Lambke on Thursday discusses the expansion of Maine Grains into the lot where the historic Kennebec Valley Inn once stood in downtown Skowhegan. Jeff Hewett is at the right. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It’s Maine Grains growth, it is the farmers market’s growth, it’s the individual entrepreneurs growth and making space for future entrepreneurs,” Lambke said. “All the while considering the need for more housing in Skowhegan to house the workers that we’re attracting to town with our new businesses.”

The new facility will also create new jobs within Maine Grains. Currently, Lambke has about 20 employees at the gristmill and 15 employees at the cafe.

“As they grow and put on new employees, the spin off of them attracting that many more people in the area is going to help all of the businesses,” said Jeff Hewett, director of Skowhegan Economic and Community Development and part of Skowhegan Economic Development Corp. “That’s part of what SEDC was looking at.”

Lambke is hopeful that with other big projects in surrounding areas, this key plot of land right in the heart of Skowhegan’s downtown can serve and tie together different attractions.

“With Main Street being focused on the Run of River project and with the mill being here, the farmers market, there is a chance to make this a beautiful corridor of economic and social activity between here and the river,” Lambke said. “We view this parking lot area, if framed by a new building next door, will really form more like a plaza that is a lovely place to gather and be outside.”

Maine Central Railroad Hotel, in the background circa 1905, that later became the Kennebec Valley Inn. Courtesy of Skowhegan History House

The Kennebec Valley Inn

The forerunner of the Kennebec Valley Inn was moved to its final location on Court Street by oxen in 1901. Its original home was where the municipal building currently stands on Water Street. The train station and freight yard for Maine Central Railroad was at the rear of the building.

“The site made it convenient for railroad travelers, and it was also near the courthouse and the business streets, so it received good patronage,” Louise Coburn wrote in her 1941 book “Skowhegan on the Kennebec.”

In 2018, the building was demolished after being purchased for $73,000 by the Skowhegan Economic Development Corp. At the time of the purchase, Hewett said that the group hoped to create a new, multi-use building on the site.

“The KVI was a big old structure that was moved by oxen from where the municipal building is to this location,” Hewett said. “Back in the early 1900s, in its heyday, the building was beautiful.”

Over the years, however, the building deteriorated. The three-story structure had very small rooms that were hard to renovate because of the varying levels of asbestos throughout the building. With the problems that existed and risks associated with purchasing the property, many private buyers turned away, Hewett said.

The historic Kennebec Valley Inn in Skowhegan is in the process of being demolished on June 18, 2018. Morning Sentinel file photo

After a lot of discussion within SEDC, the decision was made to buy the building, abate it and then tear it down. At that time, Hewett said, discussions with Lambke had taken place, ideas had been shared, but there was no plan in place.

“We were able to put together a proposal with her that worked for us and her, and we believe that it’s going to have a major impact on the town of Skowhegan,” Hewett said. “It’s going to impact every business in Skowhegan one way or another.”

New construction

Lambke said that the goal is to begin construction within the next four to five years.

“The solution that SEDC came up with us was to allow us to enter into a purchase and sale agreement for the land with the stipulation that we have a year to achieve and approve of a construction plan with the town,” she said. “Then we have up to four years after that to get a final building built, so while we hope to execute that project sooner, we recognize that it may take time to find the right partners and to build a model that is going to be successful in Skowhegan.”

What’s unique about this project is the hybrid model that is being explored. This will allow occupants to come into the building having an equity stake in the project with an upfront cost to get into the building and potentially a monthly due to the building. When they choose to leave, they can sell their equity space. This model, Lambke said, makes construction in rural areas possible.

“I think Amber’s drive really comes from her thinking outside of the box,” Hewett said. “She doesn’t use the normal practice on new projects, and I think that’s worked extremely well for her.”

Housing and childcare have both been deemed important elements to include in the new construction. In order to attract new workers to town, housing needs to be available to them.

“Childcare is an issue for many of our employees, and we envision the possibility of childcare services that can happen in the building next door,” Lambke said. “At any given time, I have a handful of employees that are looking for houses to buy or rent and the housing stock is just short.”

“That is definitely something that is coming out from the last 10 years,” Hewett said. “Businesses around this area are having a hard time for their employees to find places to live. We have a lot of old stock here, some of them are very beautiful facilities, but they don’t have much new facilities and this project and the (Bigelow Brewing) project are two that can be a very nice niche for Skowhegan.”

Another benefit in town is the Three Ring Binder internet connection on High Street.

The next phase in the process is to hire a project developer to explore parties interested in becoming building tenants and to help come up with innovative solutions to financing a new construction in a rural area.

“We have a larger, more ambitious vision, but I’m still leaving the options open for fine tuning the exact plan,” Lambke said.

A rendering of the vision Maine Grains’ Amber Lambke has for the downtown Skowhegan lot once occupied by the Kennebec Valley Inn. The Maine Grains Grist Mill is at right. Animate, Inc. for Land & Furrow LLC

Success in its business practice

Maine Grains’ business model has received praise. Its success is grounded in its statewide commitment to collaborate with other businesses. Different from larger, industrial-scale flour mills, this new Maine economic model allows for more jobs by using a manual system.

“If we’re selling enough grain to create more jobs, I would rather create more jobs in an area like this,” Lambke said in August. “One of the reasons why Maine is such a model right now for the revival of grains is the commitment to collaboration.”

This includes connecting with farmers, working alongside the University of Maine, which has been a key player in getting the money to focus on grains and their trials, and the brewing community, whose main ingredient is grain, which can be sourced locally.

Though online sales have steadied, Lambke said that numbers are still higher than the previous year and the business is still poised for more growth.

“It’s created an awakening for mainstream grocery stores,” Lambke said.

A town of economic growth

Last fall, Jeff and Pam Powers, owners of Bigelow Brewing, purchased the four-story Solon Manufacturing building on Island Avenue and plan to convert it into a larger production space, taproom, residential living spaces and restaurants.

The Run of River is a proposed whitewater recreation area in and around the Kennebec River Gorge that will make the town a tourist destination. The site will include a whitewater park with an expanded and four-season trail system, riverfront promenade and fishing waters with improved fish habitat.

Located next to the Miller’s Table is Crooked Face Creamery, which expanded into downtown Skowhegan last year, which includes a milk room, production space, aging room, a smoking area and a packaging area.

Despite the pandemic, Lambke is hopeful that this project will only bring positive outcomes to the town.

“The pandemic will end and life will go on, and it’s not a time to stop thinking about where we need to be heading,” Lambke said.


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