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Allagash business owners hopeful federal grant will improve local economy

ALLAGASH, Maine — With an unemployment rate nearly five times that of Maine and an aging and declining population of just 226 year-round residents in Allagash, a group of local business owners is hoping to be awarded federal grant money to help turn the town’s sagging economy around.

Proprietors of Two Rivers Lunch, Tylor Kelly Camps and Moosetown Auto Repair, through the Northern Maine Development Commission, have applied for a 2018 Community Development Block Grant microenterprise grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Joella Theriault, community development specialist at NMDC wrote the grant application, requesting funds in the amount of $150,000, which if awarded will be divided evenly between the three Allagash businesses.

Moosetown Auto Repair is the only vehicle repair shop within 30 miles of the town of Allagash. (Jessica Potila)

Both Two Rivers Lunch and Tylor Kelly Camps were established in the town 40 years ago by Tylor and Leitha Kelly. Their children, Darlene Kelly-Dumond and Wade Kelly have since assumed ownership of the respective businesses.

It was Kelly-Dumond who first approached NMDC about the grant possibility, with support from the neighboring town of St. Francis.

Kelly-Dumond said that she got the idea a few years ago while reading a Friends of St. Francis Facebook post that was explaining the group’s application for a CDBG grant to members of that community.

“I reached out to them and they guided me to the next step of finding out how we could apply,” she said.

Kelly-Dumond is passionate about keeping the town of Allagash as well as Two Rivers Lunch alive.

“Allagash is the last outpost in the state of Maine. We’re the gateway to 3.5 million acres of forestland and outdoor recreation,” she said. “We’re at the doorstep of that. We are the only restaurant here. Not only are we important in those industries, we’re also like the hub for our little community.”

Theriault noted in the grant application that the building which houses Two Rivers Lunch is not energy efficient and that utilities and heating costs consume about one third of the restaurant’s revenues.

Kelly-Dumond hopes to use grant funds to increase energy efficiency at Two Rivers Lunch while making other improvements, including replacing a 30 year-old grill, updating the fire suppression system, and adding a handicapped accessible restroom.

The elder Kelly’s built the restaurant from the ground up using donated building materials, according to Theriault.

“Allagash residents have always supported one another with the resources available to them without requesting assistance from outside agencies,” she wrote in the application.

“That’s always been the way, but as our community begins to age, it doesn’t happen as much, but we still support one another,” Kelly-Dumond said.

She added that the other two businesses on the grant application also are vital to the town of Allagash.

“They’re just as instrumental in keeping us alive, both of them,” she said.

Wade Kelly is owner of Tylor Kelly Camps, which offers year-round guided hunting and fishing trips, canoe rentals, riverfront lodging, and transportation and shuttles for people paddling the Allagash and St. John Rivers.

Tourists from all over the country visit Allagash and enlist the services of Tylor Kelly Camps, according to Kelly.

Toby Hafford, owner of Moosetown Auto Repair, would like to add more tools to his inventory if the Northern Maine Development Commission is able to secure grant money for the business. (Jessica Potila)

“Sometimes people just want to sit by a campfire on the bank and watch the river flow by,” he said.

He added that he enjoys witnessing that expression of joy on people’s faces when his clients see their first moose or catch their first brook trout.

Sue Underhill-Kelly operates Tylor Kelly camps along with her husband.

“Allagash is more of a destination. It’s not just for hunting and fishing and camping, sometimes people just want to come see the wildlife and unwind and unplug.”

If the grant is approved, the couple hopes to acquire additional canoes and kayaks to rent out and to complete construction on a new lodge on the river’s edge that will sleep 20 when done.

“The guide service’s clients bring critical revenue to the surrounding area by spending money on food, gas, sporting equipment, licenses, etc. This not only helps the local community but the entire region,” Theriault wrote in the grant application

“We want to expand on and improve what we have,” Wade Kelly said.

Underhill-Kelly pointed out that tourists from out of state who travel to Allagash often do so by way of driving across the entire state of Maine.

“We are way up at the top of the state so they spend money all the way up,” she said.

“They start spending money as soon as they cross the bridge in Kittery and all the way to where the road ends in Allagash.”  

The businesses are interdependent in terms of serving the community. Tourists who use the guide service often eat at the restaurant, and sometimes they even develop vehicle trouble.

This is where Moosetown Auto Repair owner Toby Hafford comes in. The business offers routine car maintenance, detailing and general repairs.

“During hunting season, hunters stop in with flat tires,” Hafford said. “This year I went and helped a guy out and changed the tire in the woods for him.”

The nearest automotive repair business is 30 miles away in Fort Kent, which also makes it difficult for locals in need of service.

“There are a lot of elderly people up here who don’t want to run to Fort Kent to have their car fixed,” Hafford said.

Many of Hafford’s customers come from the nearby towns of St. Francis and St. John.

“It feels great to do a job that provides a service for the people. They appreciate it and it’s kind of why I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I’m honest, hardworking and fair and people see that in me and respect me for that.”

Hafford built his garage using lumber he acquired while helping to tear down an old saw mill in town. He repurposed the lumber and built the garage next to his home about a mile past the restaurant.

“I got a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place,” he said. The tools he currently owns he picked up along the way piece by piece.

“I buy it a little as I go,” he said.

Hafford hopes to use the grant money to buy more advanced equipment, including an alignment machine so that he can expand his services and become certified to perform vehicle inspections. The Moosetown Auto Repair garage also needs an overhead door and electrical work, and he hopes to buy a waste oil furnace.  

“The grant would help us a lot,” Hafford said, pointing out that while $50,000 may not seem like much to a business in a big city like Portland, that is not the case in Allagash.

“Money goes a long way for our community up here,” he said.  

Residents who attended the annual Allagash town meeting on Saturday, March 24, voted unanimously in favor of an article in the town warrant requesting approval of the grant application.

Support for the grant application by voters in the town came as no surprise to Kelly-Dumond.

“The Allagash is where we live, it’s a brand in its own right and we all work together really hard to bring people here,” she said. “We’ve just got to keep giving them a reason to come.”

The business owners will learn on or about July 1 whether they won the grant.

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