The Thompson Community Center in Union consists of two connected buildings, as seen in this undated photo from the Union Historical Society. The yellow building was built in 1932 as a school. The brick addition was built in 1951. Credit: Courtesy of Union Historical Society

Over the last 35 years, the Thompson Community Center in Union has hosted bingo nights, flea markets, dances, craft fairs, performances and free Thanksgiving meals. It has held a thrift store, a hair salon, a food pantry, a schoolroom museum and a child care center. It has hosted yoga classes, dance lessons, gymnastics, pickleball, basketball, Boy Scouts meetings and many other activities that drew people to the town from across the midcoast.

But as of last week, all was quiet as the historic building’s doors were locked, its pipes set to be drained and its heat turned off after a long history of deferred maintenance that left it in a state of disrepair.

The events leading up to the building’s indefinite closure have divided the town, leading some people to feel betrayed, angry and uncertain. The irony has not been lost on town officials and residents that a building that was supposed to bring people together might be tearing them apart. When people in Union discuss repairing the building, they also talk about how to repair relationships with neighbors.

On Jan. 31, in an apparent act of vandalism, someone with a key turned off the heat in the building, with temperatures below freezing, before the pipes had been drained. The town manager suspected someone was trying to make a point about what could happen with no one looking over the building, after selectmen voted to close the community center, effective that last day of January.

The furnace “can’t be accidentally shut off. You have to go downstairs through a locked door to get to it. It was intentional. That’s how contentious it is here,” Town Manager Jay Feyler said.

Volunteers who operated the town-owned center, meanwhile, have expressed distrust of some selectmen who criticized them in the past for not raising enough money to keep up repairs — a task they said eventually became impossible with no ongoing financial support from taxpayers. The volunteers instead raised money through center events and subletting space.

“We have, in our Yankee frugality, allowed our assets to deteriorate. We have saved all that tax money for 30 years, and here we are: We’re stuck with something that needs a lot of maintenance,” said Don Kleiner, who lives in Union and was on a 1987 committee charged with figuring out what to do with the building, which had been a school.

Some residents have said they believe mothballing a 30,853-square-foot structure with a leaking roof in the middle of winter will make it harder to eventually renovate. Others have wondered if the town has upheld the wishes of Francis Thompson. He bequeathed the funds to build a community center about a century ago, according to a 1987 news article from The Courier-Gazette, which quoted the will. Thompson’s wealth stemmed from his business making the soda Moxie, originally an elixir invented by his father, Augustin Thompson.

Others described the closure as financially prudent and practical, especially given a successful effort in the fall to halt repairs to the building.

The referendum vote in November prohibited the town from spending any money to fix the structure, even though another town-wide vote five months earlier directed the town to keep it as a community building and authorized spending to renovate it. The town had begun to make fixes, such as patching the roof, when it had to halt work indefinitely.

Not having a community center where people can gather will only make it harder to heal divisions, said Argy Nestor, who taught art to seventh and eighth graders at the building when it housed an elementary and junior high school. Her classroom had been under the gym, and she remembered how the lights shook when kids above played basketball.  

“So much of it goes back to trust,” said Nestor who until recently had been volunteering at the thrift store in the community center and was one of about 100 people signed up to play pickleball. “That’s the work we need to do in our community … if we want to be a successful community.”

When the school closed in 1987 — sending kids up the road to the new Union Elementary School and D.R. Gaul Middle School — most voters wanted a community center. Community centers have been associated with improvements in people’s health and wellbeing, and they have been found to enhance the livability of a community.

Residents voted twice, in October 1987 and March 1988, to turn the building into a community center and to allot a total of $50,000 to get it going, according to archived town records. They approved the forming of a nonprofit called the Thompson Community Center Association to lease the building from the town for 99 years, at $1 per year.

Photos taken in the spring of 2022 show murals painted on the inside of the Thompson Community Center in Union, the outside facade and a welcome sign. A January 2023 photo shows the gymnasium no longer in use. Credit: Courtesy of Argy Nestor

But not everyone agreed with the direction, including Feyler, who was then a selectman.

“I voted against it because I was young and broke, and I didn’t want to pay any more taxes. I just felt it was going to cost us money,” he said. “I just wanted to tear it down at that point.”

Today, Feyler feels differently. As town manager since 2009, he has gotten an up-close view of both architectural and relational deteriorations, and promising and unworkable proposals for the building’s future. The subject has dominated town business, he said.

One point of contention was that volunteers could not keep up with major repairs, as their 1989 lease required. Over the years town officials blasted the nonprofit for not meeting their agreement terms, “which they weren’t, but they couldn’t afford to,” Feyler said. For instance the steam boiler from the 1950s broke down eight times in 1989, according to a budget report. It’s still in the building.

When the volunteers asked for help, selectmen said no, said Bill Packard, who served on the Thompson Community Center Association board more than a decade ago and is now a selectman.

“They just said, ‘The lease is the lease,’” he said.

Looking back, Packard said it was an incredible feat that volunteers dedicated themselves as long as they did.

They did it even though they were hampered by the fact that the nonprofit had no collateral to use to secure grants or loans, given that the town owned the building, members of the nonprofit have said.

As the building fell into greater disrepair, selectmen sought out another entity to take over, prompting the nonprofit to feel targeted, said Paul Raudonat, who became involved in managing the building more recently. But a potential option to have Penquis redevelop the building into senior housing units didn’t make it past a town vote in January 2018.

As trust eroded, the Thompson Community Center Association restricted town officials’ access to the building.

“Up until they vacated, I can tell you no officials were allowed in there — very rarely and if so chaperoned,” said Adam Fuller, chairman of the selectboard. “I did not have a key to the building. I could not go into it even though it was a town asset and I was numero uno on liability on it.”

The nonprofit also didn’t share its financial records when town officials asked for them. So in December 2021, former selectman Bill Lombardi said he wanted to terminate the town’s lease with the nonprofit.

The timing was poor, Feyler said, because he had started meeting with the group to try to figure out what to do. Its fundraising efforts had decreased, and renovation costs had increased. A 2018 engineering study documented a long list of needed improvements: to floors, walls, bathrooms, lights, windows, wiring, the heating system and more.

The study found that immediate needs could cost $156,800, while total improvements over 20 years, including inflation, could cost more than $1.5 million.

When Lombardi moved to shut down the building, it went against the word the town had given the nonprofit, Feyler said. Lori Carlson, who led the nonprofit then, declined an interview. 

“I was quite upset at the meeting,” Feyler said. “I talked them out of voting on it right then and there.”

But the damage to trust was irreversible, Feyler said. The nonprofit vacated its lease, relinquishing management of the building.

The building might have been shuttered, but volunteers didn’t want to see that happen.

“We felt that when a building gets shut down, that’s when there is less of an opportunity to show what is possible in that space,” said Raudonat, who became board chair of a new nonprofit, the Thompson Memorial Association, which quickly formed in January 2022 to temporarily run the community center.

It started hosting activities and a senior walking hour in the morning. It reopened a thrift shop and rented space for small events.

Then residents voted two more times as they did in the past: They backed the center. They authorized the town to spend up to $30,000 to heat, insure and electrify the building through last winter. And in June a plurality of voters said they wanted the town to retain ownership of the building and renovate it, approving a dollar range on repairs.

But not everyone agreed, especially as property tax bills went up substantially due to increased town and school costs, and a revaluation, Feyler said.

Today the Thompson Community Center in Union consists of two connected buildings. But it started as a two-story high school, constructed in 1932. Credit: Courtesy of Union Historical Society

One resident, Linda Waltz Mountainland, took action, getting enough signatures to put a question on the November ballot halting any repairs. The vote was in favor, 875-553, of stopping work until an engineering study could be completed, a summary of the report and total cost of the project mailed to all registered voters of the town, and a referendum election held on whether to proceed with the project.

“It’s not about what I want long term for the building but what the town as a whole wants for the building. All I want is to get all the real info we can get,” Waltz Mountainland said.

Selectmen had already put aside $350,000 for repairs and begun some fixes. But the vote delayed safety repairs indefinitely, and didn’t save the town money because funds had already been approved and factored into tax bills. What’s more, said Fuller, the selectman, a new engineering study, to likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, on the whole building isn’t needed right now because it’s possible the town will decide to split the building in half. If it does that, a different engineering study would be needed.

“Doing it now isn’t going to negate us having to do it again. I think in some ways it was a waste of money,” Fuller said.

Rather than continue to spend taxpayer money to heat a building in the winter that wasn’t getting maximum use and couldn’t have safety upgrades, the selectmen voted, 3-1, with one abstaining, in December to mothball it.

What happens next will depend on whether the town can find outside help.

Prior to the November vote, the selectboard had partnered with the Midcoast Council of Governments to potentially find a developer for the older, yellow-painted part of the building, which was built in 1932 to house mostly classrooms. If feasible, the funds derived from that project — potentially senior housing or something else — could then be used to renovate the attached brick portion built in 1951, which houses the gym, stage, cafeteria and other rooms, as a community center for the town, Fuller said.

In the end, the will of voters is most important, Fuller said, adding that he has tried to encourage rather than restrict conversation because that is how the community will arrive at a middle ground.

Ruth Ann Senff-Wiemer, who has lived in Union for 33 years and participated in pickleball and yoga at the building, echoed his sentiment. In addition to ongoing financial support, “I think we all have to be willing to talk to one another, definitely,” she said.

Fuller doesn’t believe the town can fund all the needed repairs on its own. So finding an outside source, he said, will be key to transforming the building and maintaining the brick side — the one envisioned by Thompson many years ago — as a center for the community. But no solution will come about quickly.

Can the center hold? After “decades of neglect and mismanagement,” Raudonat said, “the selectboard is doing what past selectboards refused to do” by trying to maintain a center. But “whether that is possible is a completely different question.”

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...