Unity’s former grammar school, long abandoned and used only for storage, is being reborn. Now rid of its asbestos and lead paint, and being refitted with a commercial kitchen and refrigerated storage rooms, the historic building will reopen in May as the home of the new Unity Food Hub LLC.

Maine Farmland Trust acquired the structure in 2013 as part of its plan to launch the food hub as a “living laboratory” with which to explore new aggregating, marketing and distribution methods for farms.

MFT chose Unity as the hub location because of the proliferation of small farms in the vicinity, with a good mix of established and young farms and farmer's desires for expansion, according to food hub General Manager Matthew Tremblay.

The building, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, held excellent potential. “Its sill was in great shape,” Tremblay said. “The school was built solid.”

Nevertheless, it needed work — beginning last May with remediation of hazardous asbestos and lead.

“We had to remove all the windows to remove asbestos glazing, then put them back in,” Tremblay said. “Inside, all the lead paint had to be remediated.”

The remediation work was funded by part of an Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund grant awarded to the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, which provided funding of roughly $200,000 to Maine Farmland Trust, he said.

Additional funding came as part of a $305,000 Maine Department of Economic and Community Development grant to the town of Unity as part of the state’s Communities for Maine’s Future program, which targets downtown revitalization projects. The grant was based on funding for revitalization of the grammar school and a vacant building owned by Maine Farmland Trust next to the Community Center, currently under construction to become MFT’s new Unity office), and for a new roof for the Community Center.

When completed, the building restoration/conversion is anticipated to cost about $1.5 million, with about a third of that coming from those grants, and the balance coming from Maine Farmland Trust, Tremblay said.

The school was built in 1898 in one of the area’s first school consolidations — it brought together students from all the little one-room schoolhouses in surrounding towns. Classroom walls still bear blackboards displaying neatly chalked lessons from the school’s last days — which, Tremblay said, will be retained.

Extensive renovations began in June, when the one-story building was raised off its old foundation. Workers dug out the area underneath and poured a new foundation.

On the main floor of the 6,700-square-foot building are two large former classrooms on either side of the hallway; the one on the right will be used for meetings and events, and a deck will be added to the rear of the building, facing the woods behind it.

“The room on the left will be used for folks to pick up their Community Farm Shares,” Tremblay said. A large room behind it will house a commercial kitchen and loading area, which will open onto a loading dock outside and a freight elevator to the lower level.

The lower level, which has an outside entry in the rear of the building, houses a utility room, a janitor’s closet, a room for washing and packing food, and three refrigerated rooms that contain almost 1,300 square feet of cold storage — “all individually temperature and humidity controlled,” Tremblay said.

The freight lift will be accessible from the downstairs hallway. Each level is also equipped with two bathrooms.

The building is owned by Unity Food Hub LLC, which was formed in June as a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust.

Once the food hub is operating under this one roof, Tremblay hopes to use the building for other purposes, among them classes, seminars, workshops and more.