September 16, 2019

Houlton to weigh historic preservation, development

HOULTON – Some consider the former German POW camp here a link to the past, a historic site that once housed thousands during the height of World War II.

Others consider it a barrier to potential economic development that could grow on the grounds where the camp’s relics remain.

Tonight the Town Council will try to form its own opinion of the situation.

The controversy has been bubbling for several months, and the group is expected to hear testimony on both sides of the issue during its meeting.

Councilors must decide how the town can best preserve Camp Houlton, located on the grounds of the town’s industrial park, while also exploring the potential for economic development.

The camp once housed thousands of German POWs who picked potatoes, chipped ice and harvested wood to support the Allied troops.

Today, the officers’ mess hall, portions of the infirmary and other relics remain on the site. Representatives from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission reviewed data about the site in May, and a state historic preservation officer concluded that both the camp and the site that contained the Houlton Air Base are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

On the other side of the issue, however, is progress. Officials hope to expand the park to make room for potential businesses.

At the August council meeting, some members of the community expressed concern that any development at the site could threaten the historic value of Camp Houlton.

Katherine Bell was one of those people. An amateur historian and curator of a local museum, Bell has been focused on the site since she was a young housewife during the war. Bell was instrumental in helping students from the Caribou Regional Technology Center retell the POWs’ tale in a documentary that they produced, “Don’t Fence Me In.”

The film made its debut in Houlton on June 6, and was shown Sept. 19 on the TV stations of Maine Public Broadcasting. The hour-long documentary has also been accepted into the permanent World War II collection at the Library of Congress, and will make its way to Germany during November. The film will be presented by Gov. John Baldacci to the Haus Der Geschichte (“house of history”) during a trade mission.

Former Town Manager Peggy Daigle told councilors last month that the POW site is “right in the middle” of an economic development project that the town and the Southern Aroostook Development Corp. have been working on. Daigle, who has since left to become city manager of Old Town, said that the town was already in jeopardy of losing potential land for economic development due to the quandary.

The council could vote to allocate $4,800 to conduct the first three phases of a more detailed study into the situation tonight. The venture will include compiling maps, preparing a development plan and coordinating meetings.

Council Chairman Dale Flewelling noted in August that there was benefit “in preservation and in progress,” but noted that the group had to move quickly.

“Time is of the essence,” the chairman urged. “I don’t have an answer, but it warrants an immediate discussion.”

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