A prominent building in downtown Bangor will become the headquarters of the Wabanaki Public Health and Welfare Offices next year, as well as a new cultural center for tribal members and the general public.
6 Central St., most recently the site of local retailer Epic Sports and, in years past, the offices of the University of Maine system, will be purchased in the coming weeks by Sky Villa, LLC, the owner of a number of properties in the Bangor area, including One Merchants Plaza in downtown Bangor.
Public Health and Wellness Wabanaki, a non-profit organization that serves the four federally recognized tribes in Maine (Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation), is already a tenant of Sky Villa’s in One Merchants Plaza in downtown Bangor.
Lisa Sockabasin, co-CEO of the organization, said she and her colleagues jumped at the chance to consolidate all of the group’s services and programs under one roof. His lease will begin in January.
“[Sky Villa] really believes in the work we do, and when it became available, we were all incredibly excited to take this opportunity,” she said.
Offices on the upper floors of the building will house staff from Wabanaki Public Health, where the group will continue to provide the health, wellness and recovery services to tribal members it has offered since its founding in 1996.
The commercial space on the ground floor will house the new Wabanaki Cultural and Youth Center, a new venture for the organization that will add a public element to its myriad programs.
“It will be a beautiful space for us to create a center developed by the Wabanaki, for the Wabanaki, as well as for the people of Bangor, to learn more about who we are, our lands, our waters and our culture,” said Sockabasin.
Sockabasin said the group envisions a place for Wabanaki youth to connect and learn, whether through classes, meetings or other groups. They also want to offer public classes on Aboriginal cuisine and Abenaki languages as well as exhibits on history and culture, and showcase the work of Abenaki artists and artisans.
According to Sockabasin, one of the things its young members are most excited about is building a climbing wall in space that is inspired by Katahdin, the sacred mountain of the Wabanaki people. She said they plan to offer rock climbing lessons once the installation is complete, and eventually also hope to offer guided excursions in the northern Katahdin region.
“We want people to be able to actively explore our culture, whether it’s trying our food, learning our language, or learning outdoor skills,” she said. “We’ve been here for thousands of years, so there’s a lot to share.”
Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness also received a $5 million Emergency Rural Health Care grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week that will help the organization expand its Wabanaki Healing and Recovery Center in Millinocket.
6 Central St. was built in the 1930s and for many decades housed WT Grant, a department store which closed in 1975. From 1975 to 1981 it was the site of Sunbury Mall, a collection of retailers. It was vacant for most of the 1980s and 90s, until Cadillac Mountain Sports opened in 1998, followed by Epic Sports in 2003.
Since the late 1980s, the lower part of the building has been owned by the City of Bangor. The upper floors belong to the University of Maine System, which had its offices there between 2005 and 2015. Sky Villa will complete the purchase of the two spaces in early December.
Bev Uhlenhake, Sky Villa’s development director, said the property development group was eager to bring a large number of staff back to downtown Bangor, after the UMaine system left and 102 people were trained.
“It will be great to have this number of people back downtown, going out for lunch, hanging out at businesses,” she said. “And Wabanaki Public Health’s idea factory is simply astounding. They are going to do amazing things.
Although Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness plans to begin its move in January next year, Sockabasin said the group is aiming for a summer or fall 2023 opening for the cultural center.