HOULTON, Maine — A motel on the outskirts of Houlton is being transformed into a Native American paradise.
Spurred by the need for temporary housing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians purchased the former StarDust Motel in late 2021.
One year later, the tribe has plans in place to convert the motel at 672 North St. into temporary emergency housing for tribal members, as well as a money-making venture.
“The COVID pandemic placed a burden on the [tribe’s] most vulnerable citizens and their families,” said Rosa McNally, grant writer for the tribe and project manager. “While the state of Maine paid for rooms for quarantining, social distancing and isolation, the closest location was Bangor and the distance created a barrier for those in Aroostook County.”
With the acquisition of the motel, the tribe was able to use it as emergency housing for members needing to quarantine or isolate from COVID-19, while also remaining open to the public.
But its condition left much to be desired, so the Maliseets decided to do a major renovation of the property.
“It is not going to look like a regular motel or a Howard Johnson,” McNally said. “When you come into our rooms, you will know you are in a Native American facility.
There will be textiles that are reflective of nature, such as fiddleheads, ferns, water and wood, plus natural wood elements and things that resemble basket weaving and the river, so the imagery and aesthetics will be reflective of nature and the river, McNally said.
Constructed in 1965, the 11-room motel needs a fire sprinkler system, upgrades to make rooms compliant with federal accessibility laws, installation of a filtered HVAC system, septic system improvements, flooring, windows and basement repair, McNally said
“It is the goal of the project to combine some of the units to create suites allowing tenants minor food preparation,” McNally said.
The tribe will reserve a few rooms for its members, should the need arise. But most rooms will be open for the public to rent, providing a source of revenue.
Upon completion, the motel will also be rebranded as the Wolastoq Inn and Suites.
“Wolastoq means ‘Beautiful River,’” said Clarissa Sabattis, tribal chief for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. “Our name in the language is Wolastoqiyik, or ‘People of the Beautiful River.’ We are very excited about the name change, the design of the building and interior design as it will really embrace who we are as a people.”
The Maliseets decided to renovate in two phases, allowing for construction to proceed during better weather.
Phase I encompassed grading and installing drainage and a concrete slab in the existing 140-by-20-foot basement, installation of sump pumps and electrical circuits, and the removal and replacement of the concrete sidewalk entrance.
Phase I was competitively bid and awarded to Building’s Etc. of Houlton, along with B.R. Smith Associates of Presque Isle for survey and engineering work. Funding for the purchase and renovation was made possible by an American Rescue Plan/Indian Community Development Block Grant award.
“This grant was a nationally competitive application,” McNally said. “The [tribe] was at a great disadvantage to be considered for funding, due to the fact that we were awarded funds for a competitive application for our food pantry.”
She said tribes that already received awards were not prohibited from applying for new grants. But the previously funded tribes would automatically be placed in the last potential phase of award, if funds were still available.
McNally said the grant was the most competitive one she has applied for during her time with the Maliseets.
“This was a huge long shot and one where you get the exhilaration of scoring the winning point at the buzzer,” McNally said.
Phase II will involve a complete interior makeover of the rooms, which upon completion will lean heavily into the tribe’s rich Native American heritage. The Maliseets will put the project out to bid within the next few weeks for Phase II, which will include the complete renovation of the interior and exterior of the facility.
The motel is expected to reopen by May 2023.