The remains of the bygone Orono Pulp and Paper mill, built in 1890 on Ayer’s Island and transformed into a factory and then a woolen mill before closing in 1996, are mere shadows of the complex that once was the town’s largest employer.
“It was a booming business,” Orono Historical Society member John Hackney said recently. “It was very important. It was one of the destination mill sites for the Penobscot River log drives” a century ago.
The mill and island once played an important role in Orono’s history, and its current owner wants it to be a part of the town’s future.
George Markowsky, a University of Maine professor, has big plans for his island and the neglected 360,000-square-foot edifice with its industrial architecture and leaking roof, but he has literally hit a roadblock – the estimated $3 million needed to fix the island’s bridge.
“They told us we couldn’t have any events down there because we couldn’t take an ambulance across the bridge,” said Hackney, who worked for Ayer’s Island LLC under Markowsky for six years.
With a 3-ton weight limit, even the Porta-Potty man cannot cross the bridge, Hackney said, which means work is at a standstill.
Markowsky purchased the historic site in 2003 and plans to change it into a state-of-the-art center to develop research materials produced by the university and The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.
“A lot of the support I was hoping to get never happened,” he said. “There has been very little support from the state, town or the university. It’s been kind of slow going.”
In addition to the bridge reconstruction costs, there also is a looming $500,000 to $3 million price tag to clean up hazardous waste left at the industrial site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set up a $750,000 brownfields cleanup loan fund, but “it comes with so many strings attached that it’s not attractive,” the owner said.
The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development has set aside $600,000 for a new bridge.
The pulp and paper mill changed into a manufacturing facility in 1907 and years later into a textile mill before closing in October 1996 as Striar Textile Co. More than 400 people were once employed at the mill.
Since Orono is a college town, Striar’s closing did not have a severe impact on the town, David Struck, assistant town manager, said recently. And since the island is privately owned, there is little incentive for the town to invest public funds, he said.
Markowsky, who has invested heavily, said without other financiers, the redevelopment will continue to move slowly.
“I’ve stepped up, and I don’t have a lot to show for it,” he said. “A lot of people think if you wish real hard, it will work out, but you have to have initial investments first.”
Ayer’s Island, Orono
Mill type: wood, then textile, Striar Textile Co.
Size: 360,000-square-foot building on 62-acre island in Orono
Last operated: October 1996
Redevelopment: private, purchased in 2003
Owner investment: $750,000