On the Road to Pineland
Rene Morin admits he had some concerns back in 2002 about moving his company, Downeast Pension Services, from busy Congress Street in downtown Portland to the Pineland Farms office campus in rural New Gloucester. "If you're in the financial services business in Maine, Portland is where you need to go," he explains. "We were concerned that people would view us as not being the players that we are."
Today Morin plans to keep his company at Pineland until he retires, "and I don't plan to retire anytime soon."
Morin and his fifteen employees have been won over by the same landscape and amenities that have attracted forty-five businesses and nonprofit organizations employing some eight hundred people, as well as thousands of visitors who hike Pineland's trails, use its tennis courts, and swim at its YMCA. Its one-acre public flower garden is a popular setting for photographs after one of the more than thirty weddings that are held on the grounds each year. Even on weekday mornings the parking lot is busy outside the farmstand selling Pineland Farms fruit, vegetables, and other goods - produce that is also found in the meals turned out in Pineland's on-site dining facility and sold through supermarket chains such as Hannaford and Whole Foods.
That doesn't count the world-class herds of purebred Holstein and Black Angus cattle, the pedigreed Dutch Warmblood horses, the organic egg operation, the hydroponic greenhouse, or the cheese factory that suddenly can't keep up with demand.
Owen Wells, president of the Portland-based Libra Foundation, credits Diane Atwood, a former health reporter for WCSH-TV who is now manager of marketing and public relations at Mercy Hospital in Portland, with getting him interested in Pineland. In 1999 Wells saw a news report by Atwood about the decrepit, crumbling remnants of the former Pineland Center. "I came out and saw it going downhill," he recalls. "Pineland was on the way to being thrown out."
Longtime Mainers remember Pineland as a place where some bad memories were made. Established in 1908 as the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded and ultimately renamed simply the Pineland Center, it served as a residential facility for mentally handicapped children and adults until the last of its twenty-eight buildings closed in 1996. By then it had suffered through decades of periodic scandals over abuse and inadequate facilities.
What Wells found on his first visit were the ruins of a failed past. But he also saw a possibility for a much brighter future. "It was too big an opportunity to pass up," he explains. It also meshed nicely with the "entrepreneurial philanthropy" that forms one of the basic tenets of the Libra Foundation and the woman who created it in 1989, Elizabeth "Betty" Noyce. Wells says Noyce, who died in 1996, wanted the foundation to encourage and support economic development in Maine, and in the years since the foundation has been involved in everything from downtown Portland real estate to Aroostook County potato processing.
Within months of Wells' first visit, the Libra Foundation had bought the buildings and about nine hundred acres of surrounding farmland from the state. In the years since, Libra has added another four thousand acres, resurrected two working farms that once supplied the Pineland Center, built a huge new equestrian center, and renovated nineteen buildings, all at a cost of some $50 million to $60 million. The business park side of Pineland includes 262,000 square feet of first-class office space.
For anyone accustomed to the sprawl and traffic found in much of southern Maine, Pineland can be a little disconcerting. The Pineland office park of red brick buildings, carefully manicured lawns, and vibrant flowerbeds has the look and feel of a college campus, and in fact Wells and many who work there call it "the campus" in conversation. Some of the buildings bear a striking resemblance to classroom buildings on the University of Maine at Farmington campus that were built in the same era.
Pineland Farms sits amid an intensely rural landscape of open fields, thick forest, and Libra's trademark sparkling white fences. The approach from any direction is on narrow tar roads that follow the landscape rather than dominate it. New Gloucester in general hasn't yet seen much of the subdivision development more common in towns closer to Portland, such as Cumberland and Yarmouth. It's almost as if the town is a buffer surrounding Pineland's office campus and a complement to its fields and farm animals.
"I'll admit, I had to be talked into moving out here," says Glen Spoerri, vice president of CAD Management Resources. "I preferred offices closer to Portland, and it was my two partners who found Pineland. But it has worked out really well to not be in Portland, actually."
Spoerri's company does software design and support for architectural firms all over the country, and their clients often visit for training sessions and business meetings. "Our clients love being out here," Spoerri notes. "The amenities, the beautiful location in the country yet close to Portland and Freeport are all pluses for us."
On a clear day visitors to Pineland Farms can see the White Mountains rising on the western horizon. And visitors are almost always somewhere in the background around the grounds and buildings - joggers, tennis players, mountain bikers, strollers in the gardens, and tourists visiting the dairy barns and cheese factory.
The YMCA, conference center, and dining facility sit among and are surrounded by the various office buildings. (Several cattle barns, the greenhouse, and the cheese factory are set off a short distance behind the office campus.) Wells says he originally thought the YMCA in Pineland's former recreation center would have perhaps a few hundred members. Membership now stands at 1,400. "I was surprised by that," Wells admits, "but I suspect the Y is drawing people from the surrounding area who were driving into Freeport or Portland before."
Each year eight thousand to ten thousand school children tour the cattle and calf barns and walk the trails. Thousands of cross-country skiers visit each winter to take advantage of more than fifteen miles of groomed trails. (Pineland charges a small fee for skiers to cover the cost of grooming; other trail uses are free.) The Visitor Center even has nature packs for walkers containing binoculars, field guides, and bird calls. Plus there are regularly scheduled weekend events, from fiber festivals to farm tours. The equestrian center offers riding lessons as well as hosting a therapeutic riding program.
Despite the visitors, "Pineland is still a hidden gem for most people," observes Craig Denekas, the Libra vice president who oversees Pineland. "We're only a half hour from Portland, but it's a whole different dynamic out here."
One major aspect of that difference is Pineland's farms. Commercial agriculture in southern Maine is almost an oxymoron these days, but Libra operates several different but complementary farming enterprises. Its Holstein herd, which Wells calls the finest in the United States, not only produces milk for the cheese-making facility, its cows produce embryos that are sold all over the world to dairy farms looking to improve their bloodlines. The Black Angus cattle have their roots in the famous herd developed at Virginia Tech University and are key to the success of the Pineland Farms natural beef business. Gillespie Farms, a division of Pineland, is the largest fresh vegetable and fruit operation in southern Maine.
The cheese operation "has really cracked wide open in the past few months," says Jere Michelson, Libra vice-president and chief financial officer who has taken a particular interest in cheese making. Originally the plan called for producing three hundred thousand pounds of cheese a year using milk from the Holstein herd, but the farm is already expanding production and starting to buy milk from other dairy farms to meet the demand. Michelson predicts the current facility will be producing more than a million pounds annually within a couple of years.
Wells says the foundation is working with other cheese producers in the state to create a Maine brand image as strong as that of Vermont or Wisconsin. "Ben & Jerry's in Vermont keeps 165 farms in business with its ice cream," Wells notes. "We want to do the same thing with cheese."
"We're supplying cheese and produce to Whole Foods stores throughout New England," says Michelson. "Hannaford, too. Agriculture is still very viable here, and we're proving that. We're pulling a profit off this farm."
If Pineland seems something of a jumble of high-tech office space, outdoor recreation, and agricultural showcase, it's because Wells and the Libra Foundation see it as a chance to show that such combinations can work. "I was concerned that I'd lose clients, that I'd lose employees," Rene Morin recalls. "Instead I've grown my business out here, and I didn't lose a single employee. I've got no regrets, none. We even like the cows."