SKOWHEGAN — A downtown center that’s intended to jumpstart business development is scheduled to open next month and is one of nearly two-dozen projects that officials hope will revitalize the heart of Somerset County.

The Center for Entrepreneurship is slated to open April 11 at 181 Water St., in a space that formerly housed the L.C. Dill Center, and will soon be used for programming, marketing businesses and providing them resources.

Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, said the town was selected in 2020 as one of three Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Pilot Program communities in the state. A group led by Main Street Skowhegan used surveys, focus groups and other tools to evaluate the town’s ability to boost entrepreneurs and new business.

Patric Moore, left, and Kristina Cannon with Main Street Skowhegan are seen Friday at the Center for Entrepreneurship at 181 Water St. in downtown Skowhegan. The center, which is scheduled to open April 11, features space for meetings and workshops. Moore is the business relations manager for Main Street Skowhegan and Cannon is its executive director. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“From those objectives, we have developed a number of strategies and implementation tactics,” Cannon said.

One step was to bring on Patric Moore as business relations manager to work with others to identify business gaps in Skowhegan and “to help encourage new business startups.”

“We believe the center will bring a positive impact to Skowhegan and local entrepreneurs,” Moore said.

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One survey finding is that businesses in the region need a conference space, better networking opportunities and office space, he said.

“In addition, we also discovered the interest for educational courses and trainings,” Moore said. “The three major topics of interest are marketing and advertising, finance and accounting, and IT and web development.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship is one of several projects spearheaded by Main Street Skowhegan, with the group’s most notable enterprise being the Skowhegan River Park, formerly known as Run of River.

The multiphase project will bring water-recreation features to the Kennebec River downtown, a promenade along the gorge and a slalom course for whitewater kayaking events.

The $15.75 million project is in the permitting and construction phase, with just over $3 million raised to date. Organizers are planning to submit final permit applications to state and regulatory agencies and to apply for additional grants.

The work coincides with the town’s participation in a Maine Department of Transportation program called the Village Partnership Initiative, which looks to slow traffic and promote safety measures in places where people gather to shop and dine.

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“This is a period of more major development projects occurring simultaneously than I have ever seen in Skowhegan,” said Christine Almand, who began working for the town in 2007 as a finance and HR administrator and then was hired as town manager in 2014. “All of the projects listed in the initial draft of the Village Partnership Initiative scope will have a direct or indirect impact on traffic flow in the town, and some will have an impact to the greater region.”

MDOT has set aside $4 million in this first year of the initiative and $4 million in subsequent years as matching funds for investments in downtowns across the state. Skowhegan officials met last month with MDOT to discuss aspects of the program, according to Martin Rooney, project manager for MDOT’s Bureau of Planning.

The next steps, Rooney said, are to work with the town to finalize the scope of work and establish a budget, to enter into a formal agreement and to hire a consultant to launch a study.

“We would expect this to happen over the next couple of months,” Rooney said.

Similar projects have been done in other central Maine communities like Belgrade and Hallowell, with the idea being to couple local money with state and federal funds to cover costs.

One of the biggest Skowhegan projects in the works amid these moves is the proposal for a second bridge to be built across the Kennebec, although selectmen recently decided to pause discussions.

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The second bridge project is the costliest of all the infrastructure plans in town, Almand said, though “significant funding” for a second bridge “would not be from local taxation.” Selectmen earlier were torn on the two bridge options that were presented after conducting a feasibility study: a $55.3 million span that would be built downtown or a $25.5 million bridge constructed downstream.

“With the (Village Partnership Initiative), we hope to look at these projects in a comprehensive manner and to develop a master design plan to guide current and future development,” Almand said. “We hope to capture this recent momentum and ensure sustainable economic and community improvements.”

Among those projects are plans for a new public safety building to be built at the corner of East Madison Road and Dunlop Lane. Selectmen in January agreed to hire Benchmark Construction to build it at a cost of $8.25 million. Fire Chief Shawn Howard told selectmen recently that a building committee is waiting for final drawings and engineer reports to break ground in the coming weeks.

Elsewhere, officials with School Administrative District 54 are planning to build a new school at 42 Heselton St., where the Margaret Chase Smith School is located, to replace North Elementary School.

The new building would house about 850 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, condensing some older grade levels at North Elementary, Bloomfield Elementary, Margaret Chase Smith and Canaan Elementary schools. This project is in the design phase.

School officials plan to relocate the bus garage on Heselton Street to where North Elementary currently is on Jewett Street.

Also in the works are plans by Bigelow Brewing to expand operations into a four-story, 80,000-square-foot building at 7 Island Ave. The owners want to construct a larger production facility with a 15-barrel brew house, build residential living spaces on the second and third floors, and open a restaurant on the fourth floor.

Maine Grains, meanwhile, has plans to expand operations on a property adjacent to where the existing facility resides. The building will host a variety of enterprises, including housing a space for a farmers market during winter months and a room for entrepreneurs looking to grow a business.

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