MONSON, Maine — The bitter divorce of a microchip millionaire decades ago may be the best thing that ever happened to Monson.
The resulting settlement helped create a foundation that is buying up vast swaths of real estate in the fading Central Maine town that has shrunk to the point that it doesn’t have a school. Or a stoplight.
Abandoned storefronts, run-down single-family homes, even a 70-acre farm have been snatched up in a buying spree by the wealthy Libra Foundation, which plans to turn Monson into a hub for artists by offering affordable studios, lofts, apartments, and exhibition space.
But SoHo this is not, and the question remains: Will the artists come?
“It’s risky, risky as all get-out,” said Craig Denekas, chief executive at the foundation. “But I would say a foundation couldn’t use its dollars in any better way, because somebody has got to do something.”
Tiny Monson, population 666, surely has seen better days.
The hilly landscape is dotted with slate quarries that once employed immigrants from Sweden and Finland, but they have been shuttered for decades. In 2007, the town’s largest employer, furniture maker Moosehead Manufacturing Co., went out of business, a blow to an area where jobs already were scarce.
Piscataquis, Maine’s least populous county, is also one of its poorest. Seventy-five percent of residents have incomes at or below the poverty level, and according to local officials, Monson is the poorest of the 16 towns in the county.
Today most visitors are hikers along the Appalachian Trail, where Monson is the last stop before the “100-Mile Wilderness,” an isolated trek through some of the most inhospitable and rugged terrain in the East.
To many in Monson, the artists can’t come soon enough. Construction workers have been busy at several locations along the town’s main drag, building a general store and apartments, razing others. Libra has bought 13 properties and intends to spend as much as $10 million on the project. It expects more purchases, including the farm, a few miles from the town center.
The busiest spot is the town’s gas station and convenience store — which Libra has not purchased — where all the changes are fodder for locals.
Dixie Lewis, a 70-year-old former trucker who says she can change the oil on an 18-wheeler “faster than you can bake a cake,” said people feel hopeful in a town where many have struggled with poverty or drug addiction.
“The Bible says idle hands are for the devil,” Lewis said. “I think it would be better here if people could see more of a future.”
But drawing artists to this remote landscape, with its long, bone-chilling winters, is a tricky proposition. Successful creative hubs tend to be driven by artists and grow organically in a desirable location with affordable rents.
Janet Brown, president of Grantmakers in the Arts, a national network of donors, said foundations often fund the creation of arts communities, but this effort is unique.
The Libra Foundation was started by the late philanthropist Elizabeth “Betty” Noyce in 1989 with proceeds from her divorce settlement from microchip millionaire Robert Noyce, an Intel Corp. founder later known as the “mayor of Silicon Valley.” The foundation was named after her astrological sign.
The foundation has never undertaken a similar effort, although the Portland-based organization has made more than $185 million in grants since it began in 1989. A $200 million fund dedicated to helping worthy causes in Maine and “embracing the sense of proportion and fairness defined by its name,” it is one of the richest foundations in the state, and its imprint has been felt in every county, with the exception — until now — of Piscataquis.
The foundation’s most ambitious project to date has been a $110 million renovation of a derelict former state mental hospital north of Portland, turning the space into an office park, demonstration farm, and equestrian facility. Tour buses bring loads of visitors to the operation to take tours and sample homemade breads, pastries, ice cream, and cheeses made on-site with ingredients from the farm.
Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said it has been a success story for Libra, offering locally made foods in summer and cross-country skiing in winter.
“It’s now a destination,” she said. “They have a reputation for doing that.”
But not every Libra project has succeeded.
When Libra built a giant European-style covered public market in downtown Portland at a cost of nearly $10 million, it didn’t take off as a commercial success, and in 2006, Libra sold it.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Government who issued a report on the project earlier this year said the effort failed because Libra tightly restricted the mix of tenants and wanted the market to cater to grocery and produce shoppers but lacked lighter fare and restaurants.
When asked about the criticism, Denekas, Libra’s chief, said the parcel was an undeveloped brownfield in a marginal area of Portland before the foundation purchased it, so the foundation added value to an up-and-coming neighborhood.
That willingness to experiment with unconventional concepts to see what works, or what doesn’t, is one of the benefits of being a foundation, instead of a government agency or a business, said Grace Nicolette, vice president at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, based in Cambridge.
“They can take risks others can’t or won’t,” Nicolette said. “And they can afford to fail.”
Libra’s success in Monson hinges on drawing artists, and the foundation recently began exploring partnerships with the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, an hour away in Madison; the University of Southern Maine, 2½ hours away in Portland; and others.
The foundation is also working with a couple of artists including Todd Watts, a photographer who moved to the area from SoHo in 2000. Watts described the town as a refuge, where townspeople take care of one another, where the water is clear and the air is fresh.
“We hear it from artists all the time: Cities are unaffordable,” he said. “Well, look what we have here. It’s clean. It’s inexpensive. And we have Internet.”
Well not just yet, but Libra said it will also pay for broadband Internet service in the town.
Owen Wells, a Libra Foundation trustee and former president, said of key importance is the town’s location 11 miles south along Route 15 from Moosehead Lake and the resort town of Greenville.
Traffic through the town would offer artists a ready-made market for their work.
“There’s some very wealthy people coming up this road,” Wells said of Route 15. “They will be interested.”
Not everyone is completely sold yet, but enthusiasm among longtime Monson residents has grown.
The Reverend Daryl Witmer, who runs an evangelical religious institute from a historic Swedish church in the center of the town, said his confidence in Libra’s goals grew after he visited Libra’s Pineland Center near Freeport, with its demonstration farms, dairy, and homemade ice cream.
“We’re all really trying to believe it’s going to work,” Witmer said.
“When we see one entity have control over the whole town, I think we are rightly concerned about how it’s all going to play out.”
The foundation has hired the former Monson town manager, 27-year-old Lucas Butler, to guide the project. He said he was ready to move to New Hampshire to work in construction when Libra offered him the job.
Now he oversees about a dozen properties Libra has acquired, with more in the works.
For now, the cash infusion, sound of buzzsaws, and smell of sawdust are excitement enough in a place that was nearly forgotten. Colleen Pinkerton, who operates a breakfast spot that caters to hikers, said Libra has offered to repair the sagging foundation of her building in addition to giving the town a new lease on life. It’s more than she’d ever dared to imagine.
“I feel like I’m Cinderella,” Pinkerton said. “This should have happened 40 or 50 years ago.”