2016 — The year in review

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January

The new year saw the deaths of two, longtime notable Norway residents. Norway native, educator and longtime SAD 17 school board member Don Gouin, 85, died Jan. 13, at the Hospice House in Auburn. Gouin worked as as a coach and physical education teacher, assistant principal at Oxford Hills High School and served on the SAD 17 Board of Directors for 30 years.

Brewster Burns photo
SURPRISE — Governor Paul LePage surprises students in the hallways of the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School as he visited some of the Technical School programs in late January.

Two weeks later, John Marlin Longley, owner of L.M. Longley & Sons Hardware Store on Main Street, died Jan. 23, at Stephens Memorial Hospital less than a month after the big wooden and glass doors to the landmark store – that had been been in his family since 1902 – closed for good. (The building has re-opened as Green Machine Bike Shop.)

Paris selectmen held their first workshop of the year to discuss policing options in town as the board pledged to cut $500,000 from municipal spending when taxpayers called for tax relief after the mil rate increased. The workshop discussion included the possibility of nixing the Paris Police Department altogether and contracting with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office. This is the second time in three years the idea of getting rid of the Police Department was proposed.

In Oxford, Town Manager Michael Chammings announced in mid-January that he was leaving his position to become Auburn’s economic and community development director. He worked as town manager in Oxford for nearly a decade.

Over the mountain in Buckfield, Selectman Scott Violette surprised many in town when he abruptly resigned from the selectboard. He cited ethical and moral principles as a Libertarian that conflicted with him continuing to serve as selectman  in his resignation letter he read at the board meeting. He decided to adopt the Non-Aggression Principle, which states “aggression of any kind is wrong.”

February

On Feb. 2, the Otisfield Planning Board considered a site plan application allowing the historic 1840 Linnell Farm at 439 Gore Road to become the site of the Oxford Hills’ latest “wedding barn.” Following months of reviews and an appeal in July by an abutter, the plan was given the go-ahead.

UNDER THE BRIDGE — Participants in the Mellie Dunham Contra Dance try to heat up the winter and go under the bridge during the annual Snowshoe Festival in Norway in February.

The Buckfield Bots – the RSU 10 chapter of the First Lego League comprised of six- through eighth-graders – waged a war on Styrofoam in the cafeteria. They created a robot, conducted research and created a presentation to try and get Styrofoam trays removed from the Buckfield Junior Senior High School and replaced with compostable ones. They took home the first place trophy for research at the Regionals and first place for inspiration at the state competition. They were invited to attend the First Lego League Open Invitational Championships in Arkansas in May.

Heating woes at the Mildred M. Fox School continued through the winter in Paris. Interim Town Manager Sawin Millett sent an apology letter to displaced tenant, the Oxford Hills Christian Academy, for lack of heat in the building. The pellet boiler went out over New Year’s weekend, and would not fire up again, and the previous oil boiler started leaking. The Christian Academy had to temporarily move to South Paris Baptist Church and students and teachers were unable to return to the unheated building until spring to retrieve their equipment and furniture. That same month, selectmen began soliciting buyers for the Fox School.

March

After annual town meeting on March 5, West Paris Selectmen met and voted to hire former longtime Selectman Wade Rainey as interim town manager. Rainey was sworn in after town meeting. John White – who served as town manager for eight years – was unable to renew his contract and return to work as he had battled cancer for the past 2.5 years. A benefit to help White with medical expenses held on March 25 turned into an impromptu memorial when word of White’s passing reached those gathered at the South Paris Fire Station. White was remembered as a thoughtful and kind person.

REDUCING WASTE — Warren Sessions, manager of Norway/Paris Solid Waste and Oxford County Recycling, stands in front of the two new compost bins from We Compost It! as the two towns began the free composting program in March.

By early March, three downtown properties owned by the town of Norway’s Higgins Trust, were sold. The former L.M. Longley & Son Hardware Store at 419 Main St. was sold for $70,000 to the owners of the Green Machine Bike Shop and the 100 Aker Wood Frame Shop building at 419 Main St. was sold for $45,000, to the owners of that business. A third property owned by the trust – a house at 20 Deering St. – was sold to former Norway Memorial Library Director Ann Siekman and her husband, Roger Crockett, for $55,000 earlier in the year. Town Manager David Holt said the prices reflect the repairs that are needed on both buildings.

Near the end of the month, Paris Selectman Vic Hodgkins announced he would seek employment as the next town manager. At the March 28 selectmen’s meeting, he shared he would recuse himself from the hiring process. The top spot became vacant in December 2015 when then-Town Manager Amy Bernard bid Paris adieu as she headed to Newry to become the town administrator. That same month, selectmen hired Sawin Millett as interim town manager. After selectmen declined to proceed forward with any of the first 10 candidates, they decided to look some more and Hodgkins tossed his hat in the ring.

April

Longtime Hartford Town Clerk Lianne Bedard told selectmen in the beginning of April she would not seek re-election to the position. After 16 years as town clerk, Bedard took a career position with the United States Postal Service. She said she would miss working with and for the residents of Hartford. Selectmen and residents were sad to see her go, as they described her as dedicated and talented and noted the town lost a piece of institutional knowledge.

ORDER UP — Paris Interim Police Chief Jeff Lange serves a dinner at Daddy O’s Restaurant in Oxford as part of a Project SaveME fundraiser, which is a program of the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative that helps people battling addiction get on the road to recovery.

Paris also lost two employees in April. On April 11, Detective Richard Belanger submitted his resignation and then two weeks later, Interim Police Chief Jeff Lange put in his two weeks notice. Both men cited negativity in town and unhealthy work environments as reasons for leaving, which included the possible axing of the town’s police force and contracting with the Sheriff’s Office to save money. Belanger headed down the road to the Paris courthouse to work as a judicial marshal and Lange moved up the coast to Wiscasset to become the police chief there.

May

A groundbreaking ceremony for a $25 million expansion at Oxford Casino, including a 106-room hotel, took place at the hilltop gaming facility on Route 26 on May 24.  The hotel rooms will rise three floors above the current facility to the left of the casino and will include additional dining options, an expansion of the gaming floor and flexible meeting and banquet space. The hotel is expected to open in 2017.

On May 5, it was learned that Keiser Homes in Oxford closed, displacing more than 100 workers. According to the Department of Labor, owner Innovative Building Systems closed the rest of its facilities across the United States and filed for bankruptcy. The Department of Labor’s Rapid Response team has been activated to help laid-off workers.

REPAIR MEN — Bill Miller, left, and his son work on fixing bicycles that are part of the Center for Ecology-Based Economy’s BikeShare program’s fleet just before spring arrives.

A woman died and another was critically injured when fire struck an Oxford senior housing complex in the early morning hours of May 21. Faulty wiring was blamed for the fire that displaced about 40 residents. Crews from multiple towns worked to rescue tenants from their home at Oxford Meadows, located at 1633 Main St. in the town of Oxford. By the end of the year, repairs to the apartment complex had almost been completed and tenants were expected to move back in.

Oxford Town Clerk Sheila Cole filed a lawsuit against a suspect who was never charged in the hit-and-run death of her 16-year-old son, Xavier Fuentes. She sued Bert “Jay” O. Johnson of Auburn for wrongful death and conscious suffering and her attorney, Jeff Wilson, filed a motion to attach Johnson’s house to the civil suit. In March 2014, Xavier was walking on Route 117 in Paris when he was struck by a vehicle, which caused blunt force trauma and fled the scene. He was pronounced dead after arriving at Norway’s Stephens Memorial Hospital and no one has been charged in his death to date.

June

In early June, the owner of the Flagship Cinema, which closed in 2014, announced the theater on Main Street in Oxford would reopen. The cinema closed in September 2014 when falling ticket sales and the industry-mandated conversion to digital projections signaled the demise of the theater. It had been the the sole movie venue in Oxford Hills for 17 years. It reopened in the fall.

Police said a local man was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Oxford home on Hebron Road on June 14 after his wife reported he had barricaded himself in a bedroom. Oxford Police Chief Jonathan Tibbetts identified the man as 41-year-old Daniel Pulkkinen. A shotgun was recovered from the scene at 152 Hebron Road.

RESCUED — A family of ducks had to be rescued from the Pennessewassee Stream Dam in June.

On June 14, Paris voters made it clear to town officials that they wanted to keep their Police Department. Residents voted 2-1 to keep the police force as-is in town.

A few days later, some stability returned to the Paris Police Department as longtime officer Hartley “Skip” Mowatt was promoted from interim police chief to police chief. Before stepping in as interim chief, Mowatt served as a sergeant in Paris for 16 years and has been employed with the department for a total of 25 years. As chief, Mowatt planned to give his officers a say in policing matters in town, announced an open door policy for residents to come talk to him and brought back the walking patrols in and around Market Square, which is how he began his career and got to know everyone in town.

On June 22, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency announced that it had arrested four people in connection with heroin trafficking in Oxford County, including Norway residents Jacolby Morrison, 18, Laurie Jones, 52, and Jared Jones, 22. All three Norway residents were connected to the September 2015 overdose death of 18-year-old Cassidy Patten. Morrison and Laurie and Jared Jones are all awaiting sentencing.

July

Over in West Paris, Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre pleaded guilty on July 11 to misdemeanor criminal counts of discharging a weapon near a dwelling, trespassing, keeping a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle and criminal mischief. He was accused of  shooting a bear close to a home and removing no trespassing signs from a Hartford property the previous fall. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors said they would drop all charges against St. Pierre if he remained crime free for the next year.  The Hartford resident was banned from hunting for a year and forfeited both the firearm used to shoot the bear and the harvested meat. At a selectmen’s meeting following St. Pierre’s court date, residents inquired about having a code of conduct for town officials.

FIRE EATER — Nick Penney, the Human Marvel, heats up a July night in downtown Norway when he eats fire during the Neveah Dance Circus.

In Oxford, on July 14 the Planning Board approved a change of business use for the former Burlington Home plant on Route 26 to allow cultivation of medical marijuana. The approval to use about 50,000 square feet of the 81,100- square-foot building for the marijuana cultivation came on a 4-0 vote with one abstention at the board meeting. The request was made by building owner and well known Auburn developer George P. Schott of Nobility LLC.

On July 21, the Oxford Board of Selectmen was told costs to repair or replace the failing Welchville Dam will be upwards of $1.3 million, according to a report from a professional engineered hired by selectmen to assess the condition of the Welchville Dam and determine estimated costs to repair it. Myron B. Petrovsky of MBP Consulting in Portland recommended to the board that based on the technical merit and cost, a new concrete dam should be installed within the existing footprint. The cost has been estimated at $1,378,369.

In late July, the Oxford County Commissioners were awarded a $180,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant to update its 13-year-old Master Plan. The award will allow the county to open up its nearly $500,000 reserve fund to begins major improvements to the facility once the Master Plan update is completed in about a year.

August

In mid-August it was announced that Oxford Elementary School collected musical instruments to start a loaner program for youngsters whose families may not be able to afford to buy a budding BB King an instrument. Students in grades four through six are provided music lessons at the elementary school but because of the high cost of instruments, not many students are involved, said Carol Lundberg, a guidance teacher at Oxford Elementary School.

NEW ADVENTURE — Longtime Harrison Recreation Director Paula Holt worked her last day in August as she was off to explore the state of Maine and find a new adventure for her career.

The month of August saw an exodus of employees and a selectman in Paris. It was announced Aug. 8 that Code Enforcement Officer Fred Collins would resign from the position. He, like three other former employees before him, cited negativity in town as a reason for leaving. He headed to Mechanic Falls to serve as CEO there. Shortly after, longtime Fire Chief Brad Frost announced he would retire early due to negativity in town, including lack of support from selectmen. He reported low morale and Deputy Chief Jon Longley was named acting chief at the end of the month. After Frost’s early retirement, Selectmen Chairman Mike Risica announced he was leaving the Pine Tree State for sunny Florida, as his company cut his job and he had to relocate there.

The Friendly Village – Harrison – had one of its own valued employees leave – Harrison Recreation Director Paula Holt. She spent 21 years in the department, growing and enhancing the town’s recreation program, using teamwork as her mantra along the way. Holt said she wasn’t retiring but beginning her new life’s journey. She planned to take September off and visit around the state in her camper with her husband before seeking a new career.

September

In early September, Oxford Casino officials announced they were about to sign a general contractor to construct the proposed a $25 million expansion at Oxford Casino, including a 106-room hotel and restaurant space. The general contractor is Cianbro.  The plan is to open the hotel, restaurant space, meeting space and expanded gaming floor to open late summer or early fall 2017.

PRETTY NAILS — Norway stepdaughter and stepmother duo Renee and Shirley Banovich show off their nails they had done to mark the occasion of Renee donating her healthy kidney to Shirley in September.

In the beginning of the month, Norway Town Manager David Holt informed selectmen the town is facing a slew of potential retirements in the next three years and selectmen and department heads should discuss the impending vacancies. Holt said then he intended to retire in 2.5 years. In addition to his leaving, other upcoming retirements could include the fire chief, town clerk, recreation director, highway department foreman and finance director.

Hundreds of students as far away as Freeport and Lewiston to Jay and Waterford, representing public, private and home schools, arrived at the Oxford Fairgrounds on Sept. 16 for the annual Agricultural and Conservation Day program to kick off the four-day fair. The annual program, also referred to as Education Day, is developed by the Oxford County Soil and Water Conservation District in Paris to teach students about agriculture and conservation.

After a nine-month search, former Selectman Vic Hodgkins began working as town manager in Paris. He resigned from the selectboard in July just before he was hired for the top spot. The longtime WOXO station manager replaced former Town Manager Amy Bernard who left for Newry in December 2015, and two interim town managers served in between his coming on board. Hodgkins pledged to stabilize things in town so the Paris could grow in a positive manner.

October

“You are open for business and moving in the right direction,” said Gov. Paul LePage, who headed a delegation of state and local officials celebrating the completion of the wastewater treatment plant at 33 Mechanic Falls Road near the intersection of routes 121 and 26 in Oxford.

CHOP AWAY — An Oxford Hills Technical School student participates in the wood chopping contest as local students traveled in October to Region 9 tech school in Mexico to experience the junior firefighting program.

In addition to LePage, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, USDA Rural Development State Director Virginia Manuel,  representatives for U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, former Town Manager Michael Chammings and Brent Bridges of Woodard and Curran engineering company that designed the plant also spoke during the ceremony that was hosted by Town Manager Derik Goodine.

At the beginning of the month, Al Mallory, who owned and operated Tucker’s Music Pub in Norway with his late wife, Anne, announced that after five years of providing a place for local musicians to perform, he would be closing his doors for good on Oct. 31. While he was unable to sell the business by the time the doors closed, Ryan Ricci, who used to live in the Oxford Hills region, told the Norway Planning Board during its Dec. 8 meeting that he was looking to re-open the pub. He hoped to creating a more family friendly environment.

On Oct. 6, one of the area’s newest nonprofits, Gardeners Growing Healthy Communities, finished its first growing season with a bang. The Paris garden – located on the donated vacant lot next to Oxford Hills Law Office – produced 13,450 pounds of food for 2016. This food helped an average of 65 families, feeding 140 individuals. Weekly distributions were held at the Second Congregational Church of Paris and bi-weekly cooking demonstrations were held there as well. The Rumford garden produced 4,458 pounds of food, assisting 159 households and feeding 249 people.

In mid-October, participants in the fifth annual Maine Peace Walk traveled through downtown Norway, landing at the First Universalist Church. This year’s theme was Stop the War$ on Mother Earth. They took their message of peace across the Pine Tree State and included stops where there are environmental concerns and issues going on, including Poland Springs. Buddhist monks and nuns from the Nipponzan Myohoji order joined Mainers and others on the 16-day journey.

November

In the beginning of November, the first phase of the McLaughlin Garden & Homestead’s long-term strategic plan kicked off. It started with the restoration of the roof and chimney on Bernard McLaughlin’s homestead in Paris. Then came the demolition of the ell and deteriorated porch at the neighboring Curtis House property. The Curtis House, which was originally a schoolhouse in the early 1800s on Elm Hill, is the site of future education center for the nonprofit. Historic elements from these structures, including timbers, posts, shutters and cedar shingles, will be incorporated into the refurbished building. The plan is for the education center to be used for programming and community gatherings and eventually be home to a cafe.

DEMO — The first part of the McLaughlin Garden & Homestead’s strategic plan got underway in early November when the damage ell and deteriorated porch at the neighboring Curtis House were demolished. The plan is to turn the building in an education center.

November was an emotional month for the town of Buckfield as there were a number of heated discussions at selectmen’s meetings concerning property plans at a proposed Christmas tree farm on Faunce Road and an unpermitted junkyard on Depot Street. Neighbors were concerned over the tree processing building that was built on an easement, an easement request for water lines from the Buckfield Village Corporation and trucks blocking the road. Selectmen invited the owner to meet with neighbors to discuss his plans, but he declined. Selectmen also voted to go back to court over an unpermitted junkyard at 17 Depot St., where former owner and current resident Roger “Pud” Bennett lives. He missed the Oct. 31 clean up date after Town Manager Cindy Dunn said she’d taken the neighborly approach for two years to get the property cleaned up. Bennett said his belongings are not junk and he is a tinkerer.  

On Nov. 17, following an unexpected five-minute executive session at the beginning of the selectmen meeting, the board voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Oxford Town Manager Derik Goodine, effective immediately. Goodine, who held the position a little more than five months, and board Chairman Scott Owens declined to comment on the action.

December

After receiving a pointed letter of no confidence from members of his department Monday, Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones announced his resignation on Dec. 6. In a one-sentence email sent to all department members, Jones announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31. Jones did not return to the station after the notification. On Dec. 7, Oxford Fire Department Deputy Chief David Heidrich was named interim fire chief by the town while a search for a permanent chief got underway. Heidrich vowed to “get things back on track.”

BACK IN TIME — Terry and Sandy Swett don Victorian garb in front of their 13-foot painted lady house float, which they rode through the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce’s annual Christmas Parade and Christmas in Harrison Parade.

After three heated discussions, Buckfield selectboard Chair Warren Wright and Selectman Mike Iveson voted against extending insurance benefits to eligible employees’ domestic partners, much to Selectman Maida DeMers-Dobon’s dismay. The vote happened during the Dec. 6 meeting, but the issue first came up in November when Town Manager Cindy Dunn told the board an employee wanted to add his domestic partner to get dental insurance. Wright gave a brief history of gay marriage in the state and country and said domestic partners should get married to get insurance benefits. DeMers-Dobson worried the decision would make selectmen “look like screaming bigots” and said extending coverage was the right thing to do.

Things continued to heat up in Buckfield when a legal dispute over the lease and ownership of 371 Turner St. spilled over into selectmen’s meetings. Lee Johnson purchased the property in June, wants to open the Buck-It Grill & Pub and applied for special amusement permit and liquor license. The property was leased by Mark McAlister, owner of Captain Bly’s Tavern, who has a lease for the property through December 2018. Selectmen opted to table the issue until the matter is settled in court and on Dec. 6, McAlister’s attorney, Jeff Wilson, served Johnson with a $500,000 lawsuit.

The long awaited opening of the Hampton Inn on Route 26 in Oxford finally happened on Dec. 13 following numerous setbacks and delays along the way. The hotel, the first of its kind on Route 26 between the Gray exit on Route 95 and Bethel is located directly across the street from Oxford Casino where a hotel of its own is under construction.