MONTICELLO, Maine – A nationally lauded developer who restored P.T. Barnum’s Bridgeport, Connecticut, blighted Victorian neighborhood has big plans for Aroostook County.
Littleton native Todd Thompson, 63, bought the 16,000 square-foot Monticello Wellington School for $84,000 two summers ago. He also purchased an adjacent 25 acres of rolling hills and partly wooded land along the river behind the school.
It took him another six months to develop plans for its future, he said.
A winter trip to the snowmobile trails at Long Lake and Presque Isle gave Thompson his answer: A sledder’s haven.
“I asked them what they needed,” he said, referring to sledders who come to the area for the trails, but do not live nearby. “They said,’we sleep in the truck with a heater, there is no place to stay.’”
The project, Katahdin North Plaza and Monticello Meadows Campground, will offer bunkhouses, a restaurant, grocery and liquor store, laundromat, lounge and places to camp along the river.
With more than 2,300 miles of trails, snowmobiling is big business for Aroostook County, generating jobs and revenue, according to a 2020 University of Maine report. Maine’s northernmost wilderness attracts sledders from around the country. And snowmobile gear manufacturer Cardo ranked the region among the best in the nation. And Thompson said his plaza and campground will add to the area’s appeal.
The Wellington Monticello School closed nearly a decade ago and Thompson’s plaza maintains much of the school’s original charm.
The complex contains nostalgic reminders of school days past; original water fountains, hand-painted murals and classroom numbers. The barber shop is in classroom No. 6, the liquor store is slated for the library, and another classroom — complete with an original hand-painted mural — is now the coin-operated laundromat with five large commercial washers and five commercial dryers.
“We saved the murals, I kept the integrity,” Thompson said, pointing to a floor-to-ceiling shamrock green beanstalk with height hashtags. “People come in here and say, ‘I remember when I measured 42 inches on this.’”
The lounge, not yet completed, is located in the 60-foot-by-90-foot gym and its stage will welcome live bands, he said.
The entire building is wheelchair accessible and Thompson said that the residents and staff at the nearby Friendly Village, an apartment complex for older people and people with disabilities, can’t wait for the plaza to open because wheelchairs can move easily from floor to floor.
Over the years, Thompson has taken on seemingly impossible projects like the Bridgeport, Connecticut, restoration across from Washington Park. Drugs had taken a toll, homes were blighted and squatters were taking shelter in abandoned Victorian homes that were once part of famed circus man P.T. Barnum’s elaborate neighborhood.
At the time, Thompson, who is also a finish carpenter, was elected president of the Washington Park Revitalization Association and the group restored 10 Victorians that were used for low- to middle-income properties, he said.
He recalls the Fitzgerald Mansion, the first of the 10 homes restored by the Washington Park Revitalization Association.
The neighborhood transformation was so dramatic, the revitalization association won the 2002 National Trust for Historic Preservation Award.
He has developed projects in Texas and New York City, including work for famed Roadfood cookbook authors Jane and Michael Stern, and some of his work is highlighted in Metropolitan Home Magazine, he said. But for now, he’s got more local things on his mind. His mother, who is 84, still lives in Littleton and he said he wants to be closer to her.
Thompson was preparing the gym on Tuesday for a planned Saturday event related to the town of Monticello and its upcoming town meeting on March 29. Thompson, in a last minute decision, plans to run for one of two open seats on the select board as a write-in candidate, he said.
The school kitchen will be converted into a restaurant and breakfast nook that will offer Spanish food and West Indian dishes, using vegetables grown on the property. Last summer he harvested 47 pounds of blue hubbard squash.
“I have a cook coming from the West Indies,” he said. “Have you ever tried scotch bonnet peppers? They’re 10 times hotter than jalapenos.”
On the downside, the school boiler burns about 700 gallons of oil a month, costing about $4,000 to $5,000. He got a good deal on the property because no one could afford to heat it.
A large outdoor wood-burning furnace will eventually save thousands, he said.
On the property, which used to be a cattle farm, there are fruit trees: plums, pears, peaches and Golden Delicious apples. There are large piles of logs that he harvested from his land. In the spring he will mill them to build the campground and bunkhouses.
Last summer, he was working his sawmill on the property near the river when a man came down to thank him and repay him $2. The man explained that his wife, who had cancer, was craving squash. But when he stopped to buy some of Thompson’s blue hubbards, he was short $2. At the time, Thompson told him no problem.
“After he left, I just cried,” he said. “I told him to take as much squash as he needed.”
And that’s really what it’s all about, he said.
“To finish this project and create a space for people to share with their family, to see children with grandparents having fun,” he said. “You can’t buy that.”
Correction: This story has been amended to clarify the chefs for whom Thompson worked.