November 10, 2012

New owner of Bingham's Kennebec Mill has big plans

Sandblasting and equipment repair business, a water bottling facility and an agricultural co-op are slated for historic structure

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

BINGHAM -- The former Kennebec Mill has been bought by a local entrepreneur with dreams enough to fill the cavernous walls of the old silo and dusty storage spaces.

click image to enlarge

Jay Strickland of Bingham recently purchased the Kennebec Mill. He plans to open a sandblasting and equipment repair business in the former mill. Here, he takes a look inside the silo on the property.

Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

Jay Strickland, 59, has taken over the mill, a vacant property that the town took in a foreclosure after lifetimes of wood production and processing.

He plans to open a sandblasting and equipment repair business, a water bottling facility and an agricultural co-op.

"The building is here, and if we don't do anything with it, it's just going to fall down. I'm trying to bring Bingham back," he said.

Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Corp., said that while wood and textile mills once provided the economic backbone for most of Somerset County and western Maine, today many of the buildings are vacant. That doesn't mean they are useless structures, though, he said.

"I think any of the existent old mills could be refitted for other purposes," he said. "If you look around the state and New England, it's just a question of repurposing them to meet the demands of the area."

Strickland bought the mill from the town, which had foreclosed on the property after the previous owner stopped paying the taxes.

First Selectman Steve Steward said that having made the sale at least ensures the town more income from tax dollars.

"We were hoping someone would buy it, but we had a hard time finding a bidder until Jay came along," he said. "I'm sure it will never be what it was, but we'd like to see people employed there."

Right now Strickland, with help from his son Jared and a handful of employees from his local construction business, New England Field Services, is making repairs to the building.

They have torn out old offices and floor boards and are replacing parts of the roof that have rotted out.

He said they plan to have the building finished by the spring. "We're hitting it hard this winter," he said, adding that the first things he plans to start are the sandblasting and equipment repair businesses and that he would also do home construction.

He said another dream would be to start a water bottling facility using the old wood boiler.

Strickland said he also could foresee renting space in the mill to people in the community. One thing he would like to start is a co-op for maple syrup, which he produces himself.

"I'm hoping to get a bunch of people interested, and we could process it here," he said. "I'm open to ideas. There's plenty of room."

The Kennebec Mill was erected in 1912 as a sawmill and over time sold to two companies that used the mill to produce candy sticks and other small wooden items, according to the "Bingham Sesquicentennial History," a book written by the town's History Committee and published in 1962.

The Quimby Mill bought it near the end of World War II and used it to build Bristol boats until around 1975, wrote author Robert Hunnewell in a history of the town called "Bingham, Gateway to the Maine Forest."

Strickland, who grew up across town from the mill, on Rolands Street, said his earliest memories of the mill have to do with boat production but that he doesn't remember much going on there after the late 1970s, when many area mills shut down.

Strickland attended Kennebec Valley Central High School and has a degree in engineering from Northwestern Michigan College.

His family used to own Dirigo Dowel Mill in New Portland. He worked there for 18 years, later working in a pulp mill in Brazil and at England News International on automatic guided vehicles. He also designs and installs control systems for a fish hatchery company based in Newfoundland.

"The town seems to be coming back," he said. "I see a lot happening, and I think it's going to be a good year next year."

Batey said most repurposed mills around the state are used for storage, retail or residential use, such as the Hathaway Mill in Waterville, which contains mixed-use retail space with residential apartments on the upper floors.

"It's more of a challenge in a small rural community. You need to find a developer with money to use for something that is in demand. It's difficult," he said.

Strickland may be just the man for the job.

"I'd say it has to be used for manufacturing or a services-related business," Steward said. "Jay has some good ideas, and I hope he'll make good plans for it. He's a busy man."

Rachel Ohm -- 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com

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