Milo begins picking up pieces after fire

Baldacci, other officials assess damage, offer help

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News, Thursday, September 18, 2008

MILO, Maine — Milo is doing what a small community does after a disaster: It picks up the pieces and moves forward.

Picking up the pieces is what George Saviolis, owner of Milo House of Pizza, and his family and friends were doing Wednesday as Gov. John Baldacci toured the downtown where an intentionally set fire Sunday morning destroyed five businesses and damaged Saviolis’ pizza place.

While police have a suspect in the fire that started in Hobnobbers Pub after a break-in, no one has yet been charged and the investigation is continuing.

On Wednesday, Saviolis and his crew were too busy cleaning out water- and smoke-damaged equipment and food to join the congregation that had gathered on Main Street.

Baldacci, a team of state officials including Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson, lawmakers, county officials and representatives of the congressional delegation, the Maine Department of Labor, Eastern Maine Development Corp., U.S. Small Business Administration and Maine Small Business Development Center were in town to offer assistance to this small Piscataquis County community as it recovers from its devastating loss.

“There are a lot of people here to help because that’s the way we are in Maine, you know, when somebody’s in need everybody kind of folds in behind and supports them,” Baldacci said.

The support already shown has been phenomenal, according to Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan. He told the governor and visitors during a meeting later in the town hall that more than 100 firefighters from 11 different communities scrambled to the scene and worked throughout the early morning hours Sunday to control the blaze.

“We are just so grateful to have good neighbors,” Gahagan said. Guilford firefighters were called to a fire in their own community the same morning and the firefighters literally ran down the street in their gear and jumped on their firetrucks to go to the scene, he said.

Gahagan said that despite the loss, the community is ready to rebuild and go forward.

Before the fire, residents and business owners had been working on a downtown revitalization plan and had received a $10,000 Community Development Block Grant to begin planning work. Dr. Ken Woodbury Jr., a community development specialist with the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council who wrote the grant, arrived during the fire and told Gahagan not worry, he said. The town manager recalled Woodbury saying, “We’ve got a plan and we’re going to fix this thing.”

Woodbury told the gathering that a public meeting with an engineer from Civil Engineer Services Inc. had been scheduled for Monday but the meeting has been rescheduled to Sept. 29 when a prototype will be revealed of what the downtown block could look like reoriented more toward the river with retail shops on the first floors and apartments on the second floors.

“Hopefully out of this tragedy, the phoenix will arise and we’ll have a better downtown for Milo,” Woodbury said.

To help support the plan, Baldacci said the state would work to help the town secure additional resources, including Community Development Block Grants and Housing and Urban Development funds. Some of the businesses were insured while others were not and certain HUD funds can be used to remove all of those buildings after the insurance claims are paid, participants were told.

Those affected by the fire were advised there are low-interest business loans and low-income housing available. The town or county can take advantage of rural business enterprise or opportunity grants that can be used for almost anything owned by the town. In addition, those affected by the fire are eligible for unemployment.

While state aid is available, residents have rallied around the businesses and those residents who lived in the apartments above the businesses. Bags and boxes of clothing, towels, sheets and toys were donated by residents and the American Red Cross has assisted with housing and personal needs.

Ron Robshaw and his pregnant wife, Shemekia Robshaw, and their five children, who were displaced by the fire, are paying a modest fee to rent a five-bedroom home that is for sale. The couple has seven children but two do not live at home.

Three other displaced people also have found temporary homes in the community.

The town has set up a fund for the fire victims at Maine Savings Bank and the town has received calls offering help, including one from Oklahoma.

Earlier on Wednesday, Paul Davis of Sangerville and state Sen. Douglas Smith each presented $500 checks to the relief fund on behalf of the Maine Republican House political action committee and the Maine Republican Senate political action committee.

Gahagan thanked those who have helped the town. “We’re looking forward to rebuilding and getting our downtown back in good order,” he said.

“Nobody lost their life, [it’s] a tremendous opportunity to do things over in a new way and you’ve got a lot of resilient, hardworking people here who are going to do it,” Baldacci said.