BETHEL — The Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry is desperately looking for a new home. Last week the group brought a proposal before the Town Select Board, requesting space on the Ethel Bisbee property.

“We clothe and feed Oxford County, that’s what we do,” said Dave Bean, executive director and board president of the organization. “We’re located here in Bethel, but on any given day I’m taking produce from local farms and delivering it to food pantries in Norway, Woodstock, Peru, Andover, and for ours as well.

“We do a lot, and we do a lot in a space that we’re paying rent on and that isn’t designed for what we do. We’re in every school. We help out with after-school programs. We’re working to help people every way we can but we need a space, and there just aren’t spaces around.”

Bean explained that the organization was housed in the former Ethel Bisbee School for more than 20 years, but when the school was closed eight years ago, the Food Pantry moved to the Nazarene Church and the District Exchange moved to the Bethel Park Apartments. Two years ago the District Exchange closed down, unable to find another space in the Bethel area.

Last July, Bean asked the select board for use of the vacant building for the District Exchange, but the board tabled the discussion.

“I could tell you more about food insecurity in Oxford County,” Bean added. “It’s a real concern.”


He provided a handout and explained that the group normally spends $10,000 a year to feed approximately 90 families twice a month.

“This year we’re going to spend twice as much,” Bean said. “Part of that is because protein is more expensive, but part of it is because there are more people who need help. We almost never come to the town and ask for anything. We’ve been searching for years for a place.”

Bean said he hoped the town would sell them the Bisbee property.

One of the group’s founders, Maryvonne Wheeler, said, “We’ve been waiting for so long trying to figure out what’s going on with Ethel Bisbee School, and we come frequently and we don’t get any answers. It’s time to have an answer.”

“We promise as a nonprofit that only has the good of western Maine in mind,” said Bean, “to work with everyone who wants to do everything on that plot of land, we just need a specific amount to build on, which is not a lot. We propose, as a nonprofit, to put together a small committee of people, including people who use the food pantry to design the food pantry and the district exchange to design the facility.”

“We’ve never asked the town for money,” said Wheeler, “not since we opened the Exchange. We were able to buy the food from the money we made selling the clothing.”


Bean said that Rick Savage has been involved in doing a feasibility study, and hopefully a capital campaign, “but we’ve sort of lost direction when we realized that we couldn’t buy the church we’re in,” he said.

“The town voted to sell the building but put such a high price on it that nobody would buy it,” said Savage. “The voters have already voted to sell the building and even doing studies at this point is going against what the voters wanted. We’ve looked for locations. This is the best location in town. It’s going to cost us a lot of money to tear the building down. No one has come forward with an offer. We are now. We want to get that building and cheap.

“I mean, It’s a nonprofit, you guys. Put it up to the voters and let them decide, but I guarantee the voters in this town will decide to give it to the nonprofit so we can tear it down and build a new 3,500 to 3,800 sf state of the art operation that takes care of the needy in this town because right now, they’re getting priced out of this town. There are people willing to step up to the plate to make this happen.”

Bean cited the work he and Savage did together for the skate park. “Rick and I can work with contractors in this town and get it done well without spending a lot. We saved 50% on that project.”

Savage added, “We have a need in this town. We get a lot of out of state money. The town doesn’t need the piece of land, and the town doesn’t need the money.”

Select board member Lori Swain responded, “We need the lot, we need the space, we need to put a building there for a town office to have our voting. We need that.”


Bean reiterated that they did not need the entire lot and that something else could be built there.

“It’s not this one thing or the other thing,” Bean said. “But we really need it now. It’s going to take at least a year to design and build something. I move food over to the high school all the time because we just don’t have the space [at the food pantry]. We’re not asking you for money,” he added. “we’re asking you for space, and we’re going to find a way to pay for the whole thing.”

Scott Cole commented that the money has already been raised on the warrant to tear the building down. “For several years now you’ve been paying taxes to tear it down, and for some inexplicable reason they keep dragging their feet and spending money on this engineering report, which is good though because it tanks the building,” he said.

Earlier in the meeting, the board distributed engineering reports that the town had commissioned on Ethel Bisbee, town garage, and Cole Block, where the town office is currently located.

“The town should keep ownership,” Cole added. “I’m all for building the building. Get a site plan down that figures out where to put the town office, where to put the ice rink, where to put a community building. Maybe it’s one large building, but it could be done. The town ought to keep the parcel, but the town should tear the building down right now, let the ground start settling.”

“I want to be clear about something,” Bean responded. “We’re not asking to be part of something else. We have a huge need right now, and if what the town is deciding to do is say, ‘You’re part of this thing that’s going to happen at some time in the future,’ that’s really not going to help the people of Oxford County. What’s going to help is when you separate out the building that we put together, give us the footprint, and let us build it, and then figure out the rest. Because the rest is going to take time; it’s going to get political. But what we’re doing is clear, and there’s a huge need right now.”


New board member Frank Deluca asked if the food pantry could use the space upstairs in the town hall, but other board members explained that it’s not accessible.

Board members estimated that the lot was about 1.5 to 2 acres. Savage said they only need a half acre. Meryl Kelly mentioned the benefits if clothing could come back, not just for the income but to fill a need in the community.

New town manager Natalie Andrews said it was important to consider the other department heads and cited the important of having information that will inform whether or not the board adds it to the warrant at a future town meeting. Specifically, they need to know what the town has voted on with regard to Ethel Bisbee and what the select board has approved regarding the property.

“We just need all the information and to see where we are,” Andrews said, “and what legally should or should have happened and then can make a good decision. Personally I want to find a way to make it work.”

Andrews mentioned some pressing needs for space that she’s observed in her first week on the job. “We are running out of space,” she said.

“It will be hard to get the voters to approve a new town office,” Savage said. “We can’t keep spending money in this town; these people are already tight on cash. You’re not going to get that vote right now. I just know it. My family would come make it so it doesn’t happen. I’ve got enough family in this town to sway a vote or two. I’m not being a jerk, but we just can’t spend the money.”


“There are big money nonprofits looking for space, too,” Kelly added, “so I would just be careful with that.”

Kelly suggested they make a list of who wants space on the property, to which Lloyd Sweetser replied that the list would be a mile long. Swain added that Rec Department alone has many things they want to put up there.

“I’m pretty confident that we can put this on a special town meeting,” said board member Pat McCartney. “One way or the other this has to go to a town meeting.”

Savage said he would put a site plan together for Sept 30, so the board could discuss it at their next meeting on October 5.

FMI on The Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry visit

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