Madawaska Town Manager Gary M. Picard (right) presents Fish River Rural Health CEO Heather Pelletier with the land deed to a 1.68 acre parcel within the new urban development located at the former Madawaska Mid-Town Shopping Plaza. Fish River will build a new health center at the site. Credit: Courtesy of the Town of Madawaska

MADAWASKA, Maine — After several months of sorting out legal issues, Madawaska could finally donate the land for a new health center, giving its downtown a fresh start.

The town gave Fish River Rural Health a 1.68-acre parcel of land at the abandoned Mid-Town Shopping Center, where the organization will build a 30,000-square-foot health center starting in 2023.

The project is part of Madawaska’s efforts to revitalize the heart of its downtown. In 2017, the town revealed Grand Plan Madawaska, a 10-year blueprint to bring new life to an area that has struggled with economic decline for years. The new health center will double the current facility’s offerings, provide new jobs and become an anchor for the now-empty shopping center area.

“It’s really just a case of good timing,” Heather Pelletier, Fish River Rural Health CEO, said Tuesday. “While Fish River was looking to expand our footprint, the town of Madawaska was looking for a partner to expand their business property. The stars just aligned.”  

Fish River, which also operates in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake, revealed the plans for its new site last year. They came to Madawaska because patients weren’t coming to their appointments.  

Health center staff analyzed why so many patients weren’t showing up, and learned lack of transportation was the major cause. They opened a part-time clinic in Madawaska, and it quickly became obvious that there was more than a part-time need, Pelletier said.

Demand for health services was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the U.S.-Canadian border. With the border closed, residents who sought care in Canada had to find it closer to home.

The Madawaska clinic had a staff of 12 before the pandemic, but with increased demand, added another 12 people and more leased space in their building. Pelletier expects another 7 to 10 people will be hired when the new center is complete.

“We’re just thrilled to be able to have this kind of facility constructed in our downtown,” Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard said Tuesday. “It’s not something that happens a lot, especially in northern Maine, that we can have a new facility like this.”

The town has owned the former Kmart plaza property for nearly three years.

Mid-Town Realty Associates, based in Connecticut, donated its part of the land and two vacant buildings to the town in late 2018. The former Kmart store was not included in that parcel.

In January 2019, the town appointed a committee to determine the best use of the space. Fish River Rural Health had talked with town officials off and on, and began finalizing plans for a new facility last October.

Earlier this year, crews demolished the two empty buildings on the plaza to make way for the health center. The new facility will include family medicine, behavioral health,

psychiatric medication management, dental care, optometry, chiropractic, nutrition, eligibility assistance, chronic care management, nurse coordination and wellness services all under one roof, Madawaska and Fish River officials said today in a joint statement.

In the past few weeks, Madawaska has finalized surveys, legal work and documents to be able to transfer the 1.68-acre parcel to Fish River Rural Health.

The former land agreement between Mid-Town and Kmart was complicated, Picard said. Kmart owned the building, but Mid-Town owned the parking lot. The agreement contained a lot of restrictions that limited development on the land. Seritage, who owned Kmart, would not work with the town.

“Ultimately, we utilized eminent domain for the purpose of economic development,” Picard said. “This was approved at annual town meeting in June. We needed to bring it up to the town to exercise our eminent domain capabilities.”

In July, a Miami company purchased the Kmart property. Fish River anticipates breaking ground next year.

Madawaska will retain some of the land, which will be a common area and will include parking for the public and health center staff and patients. The town has already done some site work and hopes to garner some grant funding to enhance recreational trail access and expand the farmers market.

“Three years sounds like a long time, but it’s coming together pretty darn quick,” Picard said. “It’s just been a complicated process because there are a lot of moving parts. But we’re just really glad to have this coming into our downtown.”