BANGOR — It was a different scene on Tuesday at the former Freese’s department store building where, almost one year ago, city and state officials had gathered on a cold, wet January day for a groundbreaking ceremony.
Gone were the plastic sheets covering the broken windows. Gone from the sidewalk was the trash container filled with old boards and broken, rotting plaster. And gone were the dampness and darkness that enveloped the long-neglected historic structure.
One-third of the seven-story building — a former major department store that had once anchored the retail district in downtown Bangor — had been transformed into a neat and tidy apartment complex for the elderly.
On the first floor, a comfortable sitting area looked out onto Pickering Square through a wall of plate glass windows. New elevators took visitors through six floors of rooms, each with freshly painted white walls and subtle gray carpeting.
“I didn’t think I was going to like it,” said Ed Conway, one of the 22 tenants who moved into the building in the past month. Conway wasn’t worried about the structure, though, or the interior decorating. Instead, he was concerned about living by himself.
“I shared a place out at Park Woods. I said I’d go give it a try — living alone. But I don’t mind it,” he said.
Of the 34 apartments in the building, 32 are singles. Conway, who is the only person now living on the fifth floor, has a single apartment.
The apartments are open to people over age 55 who qualify under federal low-income assistance guidelines. Tenants pay between $208 and $416 a month depending on their incomes, a rent which includes heat, hot water and electricity.
While he is looking forward to the rest of the apartment complex filling up, Conway said that part of the reason for his move was necessity — he needed to be in a place central to many of the services he needs.
“One of the things is I don’t have a vehicle. I needed to be on the bus line,” said Conway, who is 59 and grew up in Dexter.
But he also enjoys his daily trip down to the sitting room to read his newspaper and chat with other residents.
The city officials who gathered Tuesday for a sneak preview of the Freese’s building project did not find themselves battling the elements as they had done at the groundbreaking ceremony. They did not have to wear hard hats or avoid water dripping through the aging, dilapidated floors. They toured the new apartments and marveled at the building’s transformation.
“But for the city’s commitment to the project, it could not have been done,” said Joseph Cloutier, the developer who has been the main force behind the new apartment complex.
Edward Barrett, Bangor city manager, said it is rare to find the commitment that Cloutier made to redeveloping a building such as Freese’s.
“A lot of people had grave doubts that anything could be done with this building,” he said.
Cloutier said that the $2.6 million project came in on budget and on time.
Cloutier is the principal in the Rockport firms Realty Resources Chartered and Pen Bay Construction, the companies that developed the property. He is also the man behind Realty Resources Management — the group that manages the Freese’s building — and Freese’s Partnership, the limited liability company that owns the building.
The tangled web of management and development companies under Cloutier’s control is almost as complex as the deal that he and the city put together.
Using the federal low-income tax credit as bait, Cloutier sold equity in the project to raise 60 percent of the necessary funding. For the remaining 40 percent, Cloutier tapped into the city’s resources — a mix of federal community development money, state housing authority cash, and an increasingly popular property tax reinvestment program.
The result was that Cloutier bought one-third of the Freese’s building for $250,000 and the city helped him invest another $430,000 in the project.
The other two-thirds of the 140,000-square-foot building remain to be developed, though the Maine School for the Arts has an option to purchase it.
“It’s altogether a different feel,” Cloutier said of working with a historic building as opposed to breaking ground on new construction. “They’re more challenging.”