January 13, 2013

Skowhegan developer, business owner plan to resurrect Grange hall

Team behind Somerset Grist Mill project at former jail takes on two-year, half-million-dollar renovation project; expects revived agricultural economy to provide tenant

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Building contractor Stephen Dionne looks to the future and sees part of the past: the circa-1894 Skowhegan Grange hall.

click image to enlarge

Builder Stephen Dionne speaks about restoring the former Skowhegan Grange in front of a hand-painted curtain, on the stage in the Grand Assembly Room, on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

The former Skowhegan Grange has been purchased by contractor Stephen Dionne and Somerset Grist Mill owner Amber Lambke, and will be extensively renovated.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Dionne, whose company did the work transforming the former Somerset County Jail into the new Somerset Grist Mill, has teamed up with grist mill owner Amber Lambke to purchase the former Grange hall.

Dionne, 57, will undertake renovations over the next two years to bring the old place back to its former grandeur.

The idea, he said, is to incorporate the building into the growing agriculture movement in the Skowhegan area, with its farmers' market, community supported agriculture program, Maine Grain Alliance, Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair.

"We would like to find some type of a grain-based business that may want to locate in that lower floor," he said. "We've had someone who's interested in perhaps setting up a malting facility for beer. He would be making the malt from barley or wheat and even rice, canning it and selling it to other brewers or to home brewers."

The lower floor is 3,500 square feet with a concrete floor.

Dionne said the upstairs of the Grange hall, like other Grange halls in Maine, is what he calls a grand assembly room with high ceilings and a stage with a painted, canvas curtain.

"This was where it all happened; this is where people gathered," he said of the Grange hall. "I want to restore it and use it for community functions, such as concerts or contra dances, maybe theater, or find a dance studio that wants to rent it."

Dionne said it will take $400,000 to $500,000 to renovate and restore much of the old place.

Dionne, whose father, Valmond Dionne, founded the construction company, said he approached officials at Skowhegan Savings Bank, owners of the Grange hall, while working on the $1.5 million renovation project at the Skowhegan Free Public Library next door.

The Grange hall is on Pleasant Street. The rear of the building abuts bank offices and the parking lot.

"I've admired it for many, many years, when it was in much better condition," he said. "It was slated to be torn down this year. I'm excited about renovating it. It's part of our history. These old buildings help define us as a town."

Dionne would not say how much he and Lambke paid for the building, noting only that it was "a generous sale on their part." He said he owns 51 percent.

Bank President John Witherspoon said in a release that Dionne made the bank an offer, and bank officials agreed to it.

"We were pleased to be able to offer the building to Steve at a price that will allow him to restore it to its original condition and make a positive contribution to the local economy," Witherspoon said.

Lambke, founder of the Maine Grain Alliance, said she will bring her ability to secure grants and financial assistance to the grange project, as she did with the grist mill.

"My experience now in fundraising and networking to link resources I hope will help bring the Grange back to life," she said. "I would love to connect the Grange building to all of the successful agricultural efforts that we're highlighting here in Skowhegan. We have leads and ideas, but no firm plans right now."

Dionne said he sees Skowhegan establishing itself as a hub of business activity.

"There's a lot of new energy in town," he said. "A lot of it started with the Main Street program, that was a big boost to the downtown area. That first round of facade grants, that started the ball rolling."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

 

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