HOULTON, Maine — For decades, the Maine Visitor Information Center was just off Interstate 95 in Houlton, where it provided tourists a wealth of information on happenings around the state.
One of about a half dozen centers sprinkled throughout Maine, the eight-acre parcel of land at 28 Ludlow Road provided a spot for weary truck drivers to park their rigs for the night, and also offered restrooms and plenty of grass and shade for anyone wishing to picnic.
But this summer the Maine Office of Tourism relocated the Visitor Information Center to downtown Houlton inside a private business — the County Co-op and Farm Store at 53 Main St. — about a mile from I-95 because the town sold the Ludlow Road property.
Thousands of tourists use Maine’s Visitor Information Centers to find out about unique attractions they might see while in the state. Most of the centers are located on major travel routes. The good news for tourists entering the major gateway into Aroostook County is that the Houlton center is seeking more permanent quarters, using a small space inside the business temporarily.
The Maine Office of Tourism and the Maine Tourism Association, which manages the information centers, partnered with the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce and area businesses to ensure visitors continue to receive travel information and a warm welcome when they visit Aroostook County, said Hannah Collins, deputy director for the Maine Tourism Association.
“Research shows that visitation to rural Maine locations has increased measurably in recent years, and with the easing of restrictions for travel between the USA and Canada, we anticipate that this growth will continue,” Collins said.
The Houlton center had more than 25,000 visitors in 2019, and with travel approaching pre-pandemic levels in 2022, it is anticipated there will be an associated return in demand for information center services.
This summer visitors have slowly been trickling into the County Co-op, seeking information on the area, or directions on how to get to Canada. The center is open 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays with a small table and an associate to answer any questions.
Staff live locally and are invested in helping tourism in Aroostook succeed, said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, in a press release.
The bulk of the center’s inventory was relocated to the downtown business and can be seen prominently upon entering the store. Even the replica of Pluto and its moon, which is part of the collection of planets made to scale in the Maine Solar System model that was at the Ludlow Road facility, can be found inside the business.
The County Co-op and Farm Store is a throwback to a bygone era, featuring fresh baked goods, fruits and vegetables, as well as natural ingredients which can be purchased in bulk.
“The County Co-op and Farm Store is very excited to have the opportunity to introduce Historic Downtown Houlton to visitors,” said Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “The County is a true hidden treasure with a community willing to share their stories about all there is to see and do.”
The town of Houlton had maintained the Visitor Information Center since 2012, when Maine Department of Transportation officials announced they were considering closing it in order to save money. The state agreed to turn the property over to the town, with the stipulation that the visitor center remain open and the town pick up the maintenance bill.
The town has spent thousands of dollars over the years maintaining the property, at an estimated annual cost of $42,625. That figure, which covered the maintenance and utilities at the facility, was supplemented by a number of grants from different agencies.
Tired of footing the bill and seeking out grants, the Houlton Town Council gave up its claim to the property in April 2021, which allowed the state to sell the property to Scribner Hill LLC, the company created by Scott Lanpher who owns Houlton Power Sports, Scott’s Recreation and Priority Auto.
Councilors were not unanimous in giving up the rights to the property, as the measure narrowly passed by a 4-3 vote.
No demolition has taken place, but the restrooms are closed. The state is in negotiations to secure a new permanent location for the Visitor Information Center.