6 Central St. in Bangor, former site of Epic Sports. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A prominent building in downtown Bangor will become the home of the Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness offices next year, as well as housing a new cultural center for both tribal members and the general public.

6 Central St., most recently the site of local retailer Epic Sports and, in years past, the offices of the University of Maine System, will be purchased in the coming weeks by Sky Villa, LLC, the owner of a number of Bangor-area properties including One Merchants Plaza in downtown Bangor.

Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness, a nonprofit organization that serves the four federally recognized tribes in Maine (the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation), is already a tenant of Sky Villa’s at One Merchants Plaza in downtown Bangor.

Lisa Sockabasin, co-CEO of the organization, said she and fellow staff members jumped at the opportunity to consolidate all of the group’s services and programs under one roof. Its lease will begin in January.

“[Sky Villa] really believes in the work that we do, and when this became available, we were all just incredibly excited to take on this opportunity,” she said.

The offices on the upper floors of the building will house Wabanaki Public Health’s staff, where the group will continue to offer the health, wellness and recovery services for tribal members it has offered since its founding in 1996.

The commercial space on the ground level will house the new Wabanaki Youth and Cultural Center, a new venture for the organization that will add a public-facing element to its myriad programs.

“This will be a beautiful space for us to create a center that is developed by Wabanaki people, for Wabanaki people, as well as for people in Bangor to learn about who we are, and our land, waters and culture,” Sockabasin said.

Lisa Sockabasin, director of Wabanaki Public Health, is shown in this 2020 file photo. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Sockabasin said the group envisions a venue for Wabanaki youth to connect and learn, whether it’s through classes, meetings or other groups. They also want to offer public classes on Indigenous cooking and Wabanaki languages as well as exhibits on history and culture, and to showcase work by Wabanaki artists and artisans.

One of the things Sockabasin said their younger members are most excited about is building a rock climbing wall in the space that’s inspired by Katahdin, the mountain sacred to Wabanaki people. She said they plan to offer rock climbing classes once the facility is completed, and also hope to eventually offer guided trips up north to the Katahdin region.

“We want people to be able to actively explore our culture, whether it’s trying our food, learning our language or learning outdoor skills,” she said. “We have been here for thousands of years so there is lots to share.”

Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness also this week received a $5 million Emergency Rural Healthcare grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will help the organization grow its Center for Wabanaki Healing and Recovery in Millinocket.

6 Central St. was built in the 1930s, and for many decades was home to W.T. Grant, a department store that closed in 1975. From 1975 until 1981 it was the site of the Sunbury Mall, a collection of retailers. It was vacant for most of the 1980s and 90s, until Cadillac Mountain Sports opened in 1998, followed by Epic Sports in 2003.

Since the late 1980s, the lower part of the building has been owned by the city of Bangor. The upper floors are owned by the University of Maine System, which had its offices there between 2005 and 2015. Sky Villa will close on the purchase of both spaces in early December.

Bev Uhlenhake, chief development officer for Sky Villa, said the property development group is looking forward to bringing a large number of employees back to downtown Bangor, after the UMaine system left and took 102 people with it.

“It’ll be great to have that number of people back in downtown, going out to lunch, patronizing businesses,” she said. “And the idea factory at Wabanaki Public Health is just astounding. They’re going to do amazing things.”

Though Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness plans to begin its move in January of next year, Sockabasin said the group is aiming for a summer or fall 2023 opening for the cultural center.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.