Magic City Through the Looking Glass, Part 6
The Walk-Through, continues yet again
Thursday, July 09, 2015 5:16 AM
Realtor Dan Corcoran pulled his Chevy truck up in front of the small house buried behind thigh-high snowdrifts on Snob Hill just as his phone rang.
Realtor Dan Corcoran (left), owner of North Woods Real Estate, unlocks the door to a typical older home in Millinocket. Inset photo, this solid but small Millinocket home on Highland Avenue (right) was listed in March for $54,900. The price dropped to $30,000 in June. (Photos by C. Parrish)
I looked at the snow we were going to have to wade through to get to the front door of 91 Highland Ave., wishing I had brought a shovel, then scanned the listing sheet: 2-story, three bedrooms (all fairly small by today's standards), one bath, a full walkout basement with a patio and a yard. Enclosed porches on the front and back. It was an attractive cross between a Craftsman's Cottage and a Bungalow-style, at my best guess. Built in 1927, the house needed a new roof, but it wasn't leaking.
It was listed for $54,900.
In Portland, it was a $225,000 house.
In Rockland, a $150,000 house.
Here, it would probably sell in the high thirties.
Corcoran was trying to solve a few problems about a sprinkler system in a shopping center he had sold a few months earlier to three out-of-state investors.
"I can't meet you right now," he finally told the workman on the other end of the line. "I'm showing properties."
Technically, that was true, even though we both knew I wasn't planning on buying anything in Millinocket.
Yes, real estate had started to sell in the past two years, Corcoran told me when I walked into the lobby of the North Woods Real Estate office in early March and asked him if he was willing to do several walk-throughs with me and to talk about real estate along the way.
"The first thing you need to understand, though, is that there isn't just one real estate market in Millinocket," he said. "There are three: vacation homes or camps, residential, and commercial. They are all different and they're changing."
Historically, the vacation homes were what Mainers affectionately call 'camps,' simple summer cabins built on a lakeshore or a riverbank. Traditionally, camps in the Katahdin region had been built by mill workers on waterfront land leased from their employer, Great Northern Paper, which not only ran the Millinocket and East Millinocket pulp mills, but owned 2.3 million acres of surrounding forest land. The mill workers would sign a hundred-year lease with Great Northern and build a cabin and an outhouse. Many camps were so close to town that mill-worker families would move out to the lake for the whole summer.
"Now, about fifty percent of those camps have out-of-state owners," said Corcoran.
Great Northern Paper had gone bust, and Katahdin Timberlands, the timber company that now owned the camp lots, no longer wanted to be in the leasing business. They were two-thirds of the way through selling the 1,100 lots on five connected lakes on the outskirts of town, with the camp owners having the first shot at buying them.
"That market is not depressed. It's high priced," said Corcoran. He and his wife have a camp on one of the lakes where they live seven months of the year.
They had just bought their leased lot at the lake for $77,000. Corcoran said the camp and land had just been appraised for $354,000.
"It has a drop-dead gorgeous view of Mount Katahdin," he said.
Camp at the lake, in this case, is a total misnomer. These aren't rustic little cabins. Not anymore. Some camps are two-story, four-bedroom, three-bath, three-car-garage homes on the lake, with built-in generators in case of power failure. Corcoran divided the recreational market further: there were in-town camps, camps, and then there were camp-camps. Camp-camps were the rustic cabins.
Corcoran said the evolving camp market started to be really noticeable about two years ago, when more visitors to the Maine coast started to make their way inland to the Katahdin region. Since there were only so many camp lots on the lakes with drop-dead gorgeous views, the newcomers were buying up camp-camps for anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 and tearing them down. In the meantime, they needed a place to stay. With so many houses for sale in town, it wasn't hard to find an in-town camp.
"It's a new slice of the real estate market," said Corcoran. "I call it quasi-recreational. They are really residential homes, not vacation homes, even though that's why they are being bought."
A recent example was a couple from Florida who had bought a house in town for $92,000 to stay in while the camp they bought out at the lake is torn down and replaced with a large vacation home.
"That's the highest price we've sold a house in town for recently," said Corcoran. "It's a nice house. In Bangor it would have sold for two fifty to two seventy-five."
"That is the second couple I've sold a house to to use like an in-town camp while they are having their 'camp' built," he said.
Another couple, from Connecticut, had just bought an island camp-camp that they planned to tear down. When they were buying it, they asked Corcoran if they could get to it year-round. He said no, that there were a few weeks on either side of winter when the ice wasn't safe.
"So, they bought a house in town so they could come year-round," said Corcoran. "They have been coming to Maine for 22 years and have always spent their vacations on the coast. Last year, a friend said, 'You should really go up and see the Katahdin area. It is so different than the coast.' They had never heard of it."
They came up the last week in February and stayed at the New England Outdoor Center at Millinocket Lake.
"They went snowmobiling the first day they were here. The second day, they went on a dogsledding trip to Nahmakanta Lake and back, a whole-day trip. The third day they just drove around the area to get acquainted with it, and the fourth day they were in my office asking what I had for sale," he said.
"This is still an undiscovered area compared to the coast," he said. "I've heard that half a dozen times or more, recently. That's what's happening. People come up here and they see those vistas of the mountain and they just have to be here," he said. "That gives you an indication of the potential power of the tourism industry here."
Corcoran took me back to his inner office, which had a map of the greater Millinocket area that took up the whole wall that he had made by carefully taping together USGS contour maps that show the dips and curves and drainages in the landscape. I love maps and I got right up close, reading it as if it were in three dimensions.
"I would have made it bigger if I?had more wall," he said.
We read it together; the five connected lakes right outside of town finally coming together for me:?Ambajejus, Elbow, Pemadumcook, North Twin and South Twin.
"It's about 12 miles from one end to the other," said Corcoran. But only one quarter of the shoreline is developable. The rest is in conservation easements. Those uninterrupted views, with no lights or buildings marring the view of Mount Katahdin, are going to stay that way forever.
"That's high-priced real estate," I said.
"But it's not high-priced compared to Moosehead Lake or other areas."
Then he said something that got my attention.
"Those lake camp owners are a shadow population of Millinocket. They have more disposable income and probably higher income levels than most people around here," he said. "If they want to go out to eat or to buy something for the camp or for their visitors, Millinocket is the closest town."
The thing is, the camp-camps are going away, according to Corcoran, just the way they did on the coast in the 1980s.
"There's a fellow from Florida, he bought a lot on each side of the undeveloped camp lot where he is going to build and he's hired an architect to design it, but there aren't many opportunities like that at the lakes," said Corcoran. "That's why people are buying camps and tearing them down and building new. And we haven't even begun to see the economic impact of that, yet."
"I think the interest has grown partly because of the attention the mill has been getting and the publicity about cheap housing prices," said Corcoran. "That has been everywhere. It's been in The New York Times."
Corcoran has gotten his share of speculators and cranks, too, including a California man who had bought 15 properties all over the country in an auction, sight unseen. He wanted Corcoran to flip the Millinocket properties. Against his better judgment, Corcoran signed on.
"We spend a lot of time showing them and people look and nobody buys them," he said. Many of the rock-bottom prices - from $3,000 to $10,000 - are for houses that need to be torn down or are in such bad shape they need extensive and expensive repairs. "It's just a waste of time for everybody," said Corcoran.
We got out of his truck and looked at the snowbank blocking the way to the front porch of 91 Highland Avenue, a house Corcoran had chosen to show me because it represented the older housing stock in town. The house had been built in 1927.
"I should have brought a shovel," he said, then remembered he had one tucked away in the truck. I waded into waist-deep snow, kicking and flailing it off the steps and together we wrestled the porch door free and stepped into the glassed-in front porch.
Then the key wouldn't work in the front door.
"Nothing's easy," I said. I pulled the hood up on my down coat. Neither one of us wanted to wade through 20 feet of snow to get to the back door. Finally, the lock clicked and we stepped inside the living room. Carpeted stairs ran along the side to the second floor. At 600 square feet, the house was small by modern standards, but it had lots of light that would gleam off the hardwood floors if they were refinished.
"Maple floors," said Corcoran. "Probably from the hardwood flooring mill in Sherman. A lot of homes here have maple flooring from there."
There were built-in drawers in the upstairs bedrooms, one of which was as cozy as a cabin on a sailboat and a second which was the size of a walk-in closet, which probably would be a good use because the closets were tiny. The bathroom worked but was in serious need of renovation. There was nothing wrong with the house, except it needed a new roof.
"He knows it needs a new roof," said Corcoran, referring to the owner, who was selling off five rental properties he owned in town. "He would take it off the selling price. I expect it will sell in the high thirties."
The oil furnace worked fine. All the systems were up to date. It was sturdy and charming in its thrifty way, perched on Society Hill - Snob Hill, some called it - because historically this area of 30 or so houses between Highland and Maine avenues were where the doctors, lawyers, and professional class of Millinocket lived, according to Corcoran.It was easy to imagine a family of five growing up here, all together, and doing just fine in these cozy quarters with Walter Cronkite on the evening news, molasses cookies in the oven, summers at the lake, and plenty of room to roam.
"This is pretty typical of some of the older home stock in town. It's a three-bedroom on a fifth of an acre. It is structurally sound but it's dated in terms of the interior," said Corcoran. "Everything functions."
Back in the truck, we cruised across Central Street and up towards the locked mill gates with the brick administration building sitting solid and spooky behind them, turned down Aroostook Avenue and into the area known as Tin Can Alley.
Corcoran pulled up in front of a functional older house that he had almost sold for $7,000 to a man who was looking for housing for a work crew at a proposed wood pellet mill.
The deal fell through when the crew never came because the new pellet mill didn't happen.
"It would have been a good deal for them if they had come," said Corcoran. "Cheaper than renting housing for a work crew."
There were a lot of houses in town for sale. Those that were selling were either going as in-town camps or being bought by retirees who couldn't afford a lakefront property, but wanted to be in the area.
"There is almost nobody coming here because they have taken a job here," said Corcoran. "It just doesn't happen. There are no jobs here."
"But, you know, it's such a small housing market. If a pellet mill started up here and hired 50 people and even 25 of them were moving here, it would change the market overnight. Twenty-five nice homes in move-in condition would put a pretty big dent in the market."
We fell into talking about Millinocket past, present, and future and for the first time in my limited visits to Millinocket, someone tied them all together based on statistics and historical events that left room for future possibilities.
Real estate was Corcoran's second career. He was a forester and had come to town to work for Great Northern Paper as a surveyor when he was still in college. His first job for the company in the 1970s was to lay out the Golden Road, the 100-mile private logging road that runs up the West Branch of the Penobscot River from Millinocket to the Quebec border, with a side branch over to Greenville and Moosehead Lake.
The Golden Road was a major turning point, said Corcoran. Not just for moving timber out of the woods more efficiently than had been done on the river drives down the Penobscot, but for providing recreational access into the North Woods. The trend towards increasing recreation in the Katahdin region wasn't new at all, he said. It went back decades.
"In the 1980s I got a memo from upstairs in our office saying we want you to look into the problems we are having in the woods with pedestrians and vehicles," said Corcoran.
"They had a pedestrian problem in the woods?" I asked. I tried to imagine the millions of acres of forestland surrounding us clogged with people behind every tree.
"Well, whitewater rafting had taken off and they were just going on to the Golden Road. On Abol Bridge, there would be 30 people standing there watching the rafts go by and a log truck would come along. Out at Compass Pond, a car would be stopped in the middle of the road with four doors open and people standing there, watching moose, and a log truck would come along. A car would show up at the St. Zachery Gate on the Quebec Border wanting to know if they were at the Allagash Waterway. They missed the turn 60 miles back and they were out of gas and there was nowhere for them to get gas. So, these were some of the problems. So I had to do an assessment."
This was in 1985. Corcoran hired a consultant who brought a team of people with clipboards. They stopped every car entering the North Woods gate and asked them if they would mind taking a survey. Mostly, they didn't mind at all.
"We got demographics, we got income levels, we asked what they were doing and how long they were staying," he said. They broke it down by category: were they coming to hunt, fish, camp, or hike? Were they coming for sightseeing?"
"And the surprising thing was, they were coming for sightseeing."
"In 1985? Sightseeing on the Golden Road?" I asked. I was shaking my head. With fully loaded logging trucks barrelling down. Whew, man, I thought: Not in my little tin box of a car.
"Yes, sightseeing. By far, it was the number-one use."
By now we were cruising down to see another property next to Millinocket Stream. It was a nice house, new everything, but I was now more interested in Corcoran's story of how the North Woods opened up to recreation than I was in wading through another snowbank and poking around a house as chilly as a Frigidaire, so we cruised back up Central and onto Penobscot Avenue, aiming for the Memories of Maine frame shop and gallery. His wife owned it and she wanted to retire. It was for sale and easy to show as an example of commercial real estate.
"It's pretty easy to connect the dots - the end of the river drive, the interstate being extended to Medway in 1966, the construction of the Golden Road that was completed in 1975, and they came," said Corcoran. "This area wasn't being promoted, it was being discovered. And we saw it go up, come down, saw use fluctuate."
"The most interesting thing was, in 1970, just as the Golden Road was being built, there were 20,000 people coming through the gates between May and the end of November. In 1985, there were 160,000 just for recreational purposes, not business."
"I don't know if we get 160,000 people now, they don't keep track anymore. The other thing is, we were just measuring summer use. Winter use was really growing as fast or faster because snowmobile trails were just starting to come on big at the time. Now, we see a lot of winter camping and snowshoeing."
"So, the largest timber company in the state developed recreational access to the North Woods in order to control crowds?"
"Pretty much. It was as simple as a one-page letter. We have a problem," he said. "They were prepared to spend money to fix it."
Corcoran wrote the recreation management plan and set the rules for licensing rafting companies and charging fees, regulating campgrounds, putting in parking lots and signage, the whole lot.
"Upper management was primarily concerned with public safety and liability, not recreation," said Corcoran. "They wanted to make sure we were doing what we needed to do to manage this expanding use. But this was a big step for recreation that has continued to grow."
It seemed a good time to ask him what he thought about the proposed national park.
"I think it could have a place in contributing to the local economy, but it's not the be-all, end-all," he said. "Tourism growing here is not a bad thing. The thing is, it's not a new thing."
"When I first came here in the 1970s we had a very high standard of living based on manufacturing" he said. "Everybody who lived here had this whole place to themselves and they had no interest in sharing it. Nobody wanted tourists here.
But recreation grew anyway and some businesses, like Matt Polstein's New England Outdoor Center and the Northern Outdoor center at The Forks, grew in spite of a lot of opposition from locals, according to Corcoran.
"The best economy going forward is one that is centered around the forest because that is the resource we have. We don't have an ocean, but we do have the forest, rivers, lakes, mountains; but that forest-based economy has to be diversified. Part of it can be tourism and part of it can be forest products and logging. That will give us more balance and a more well-rounded economy," said Corcoran.
I was about to ask how he would go about reinvigorating the forestry industry in Millinocket given the succession of mill bankruptcies and the demolition of the old mill, but we had reached his wife's shop.
Inside the Memories of Maine Gallery, self-taught artist and photographer Jean McLean energetically walked me through her shipping room and loading dock, storage room, and the framing shop with a sophisticated programmable matting machine, and the retail shop which was crowded with her paintings, photographs, jewelry and antiques. She measured and cut out a frame in seconds, to illustrate the equipment, then programmed a mat, which the machine cut, then did a quote on a frame, mat, and glass for a picture that came out lower than the competition in Bangor even when the quote was upgraded to archival mats and UV-protected glass. The business and building were for sale for $125,000.
It was profitable, McLean said. Diversity was key. Postcards, key-chains, bookmarks. One of her successes was to print her flower paintings at a small enough size to make into pendants and earrings which had found a hot market in Australia and England over eBay. They sold for $25 each.
"I can't make enough of them," she said. "I haven't really tried to sell much over the Internet. It's about 10 percent of my business. I could though, couldn't I? These just caught on."
And that got me thinking: How would Millinocket change if, in addition to a smaller forest industry and a growing tourism economy, people who wanted to live at the foot of the Great North Woods brought their digital jobs with them?
The closing of the mill and the dying paper industry had at first seemed like only a tragedy. In this evolving walk-through, which was as much about perception as anything else, it occurred to me the end of the mill-town identity could be looked at from the opposite angle: as an opportunity to start fresh. In 1899 this had been a frontier town that an engineer had carved out of raw forest after rounding up investors to back him.
Millinocket wasn't just another dying mill town. It's geographic features and location set it distinctly apart. And now, with real estate prices so low, it seemed entirely possible that it could become a frontier town, again.
Next week: The Walk-Through, Part 4