April 05, 2020

‘THAT WAS OUR MILL’ Investing in Maine’s legacy: Cornerstones for new growth in local towns Knox Mill, Camden

The former Knox Woolen Co. mill, once the backbone of Camden’s now defunct textile industry, sat like a dead dinosaur in the center of town for years while residents mourned over the decaying carcass.

“I don’t think anyone had any hope” for the mill, local architect Stephen Smith said recently. “It was dead.”

The deteriorating mill buildings, which have stood for 150 years along the Megunticook River just upstream from Camden Harbor, were a bone of contention for town leaders until a small group of investors, led by Smith, took a chance and revived the site.

“It was a hidden gem, but people weren’t thinking about it,” architect Ric Quesada said.

It took $5 million in private investments, mostly funded through MBNA America, and the efforts of Smith, Quesada and his brother Peter Quesada, owner of the Portland-based development firm Fore River Co., to transform the bony remains of the antiquated mill into a contemporary facility that retains the town’s history.

When the mill was sold to an out-of-state company and then closed in 1988, “people were devastated,” local historian Barbara Dyer said recently. “They had never known anything else.”

Knox Mill, one of five textile mills that once operated along the Megunticook, employed 300 people during its heyday.

Many residents nowadays don’t realize that the seaside resort was once a textile mill town with its own ghetto-style employee housing community known locally as Millville, said Dyer, who has lived in Camden all of her 82 years.

The Fore River Co. partners refurbished the peeling and soggy buildings one at a time and attracted MBNA, which used its deep pockets to finish the renovations.

Of the original 175,000-square-foot dinosaur, nearly half was removed.

The renovated mill features a glass floor in the lobby of what is now the Owl and Turtle Bookstore, which allows visitors to watch the Megunticook River rushing beneath their feet.

Maine Investment Properties LLC, a Baltimore-based real estate development firm, purchased the site from MBNA in December and gained planning board approval for 41 residential condos in May.

“We purchased them because the buildings have been renovated, it’s historic property, and it’s in an ideal location,” Brett Cohen, the firm’s vice president, said recently.

The labor-intensive rehab project was well worth the effort to wake up Camden’s dying dinosaur, Smith said.

“It’s a true success story,” he said proudly.

Knox Mill, Camden

Mill type: textile, Knox Woolen Co.

Size: 175,000-square-foot building on 6.5 acres in downtown Camden

Constructed: 1850

Last operated: 1988

Redevelopment: private, sold to local investment group, 1988; MBNA, 1993

Owners invested: approximately $5 million

Purchased: $11 million, Baltimore-based Maine Investment Properties LLC in December

Correction: A story published Saturday on the Knox Woolen Mill in Camden requires clarification. Local historian Barbara Dyer did not characterize the employee housing community as ghetto-style. She said the area known as Millville housed families of millworkers and businesspeople alike. Also, there was a grade school and a high school in that section of town, she said.

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