BAR HARBOR, Maine — The number of tourists in Bar Harbor always declines after Labor Day, but a small group of dignitaries who gathered late Monday afternoon by the shore of Frenchman Bay for a day of discussing economic issues generated a certain amount of activity that isn’t usually seen in this scenic coastal town, even at the height of summer.
The governors of the six New England states and premiers of five eastern Canadian provinces arrived Monday at the Bar Harbor Club for their 32nd annual conference, during which they plan to talk about mutual concerns such as transportation and energy. The daylong conference is expected to get under way at 9 a.m. today at the club.
But a group of protesters said the more important issues that demanded attention are democracy and open government. Before the governors and premiers arrived, about 30 members of a group called Maine Atlantica Watch protested outside the club, claiming that the invitation-only event was being held to promote corporate interests and that the public was being denied its right to weigh in on the issues being discussed.
“A major problem with this [conference] is that it takes corporate interests over the people,” said Angela Giles, an organizer with the Council of Canadians in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “[The corporations] are trying to make money however they can make money.”
The protesters, who demonstrated in town and outside the Bar Harbor Club for about an hour in the early afternoon, had dispersed before Gov. John Baldacci and New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham arrived at the club for a press briefing at about 5 p.m.
Before attending a private dinner at the Regency Hotel’s Walsh House with other officials Monday evening, Baldacci and Graham told reporters that they hope to find ways they can help improve the economy for residents on both sides of the border. Baldacci said developing environmentally friendly energy industries and domestic sources of fuel could help strengthen the regional economy.
“Jobs is the number one issue,” Baldacci said. “Because at the end of the day if people don’t have an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families you’re going to end with an awful lot of other issues that require a lot of time and resources.”
Graham said the conference is a way for the top executives of the states and provinces to meet face-to-face and discuss regional issues that affect them all.
“I’m very confident that the continued dialogue and continued cooperation will enhance not only the opportunity to work together but the competitiveness as well for this region,” Graham said.
Baldacci acknowledged that the proposed development of liquefied natural gas terminals on Passamaquoddy Bay likely would be discussed during today’s conference. Canadian officials oppose the development of such LNG terminals on Passamaquoddy Bay but have supported a terminal that is being constructed by Irving Oil in Saint John, New Brunswick. Baldacci said he supports the development of LNG terminals in Maine, even on Passamaquoddy Bay.
“We think as much as possible natural gas is the future,” Baldacci said. “At the same time we want it done in a responsible fashion. We think that’s important to our lifeblood and commerce. We understand that there are differences of opinion, but at the same time we’re expressing our feelings as people are expressing their opinions on both sides of the border.”
LNG development was one of the concerns raised by the conference protestors, who met at noon on the Village Green before marching a few blocks to demonstrate outside the club. The east-west highway concept, which would link the Maritime Provinces with Quebec by a highway through northern Maine, was another.
According to protesters, the conference is aimed at promoting the “Atlantica” concept, in which businesses on either side of the border would work together to enhance the region’s business climate. The “Atlantica” region, as described by supporters, includes New England, northern New York state, the Maritime Provinces and Quebec.
Hillary Lister, an Athens resident and a member of Maine Atlantica Watch, said the “Atlantica” concept could undermine the efforts of residents to control what kind of development occurs in their communities, such as LNG development on Passamaquoddy Bay. Atlantica will not be good for the environment or for workers’ rights, she said.
“We’re concerned this [conference] will help lay the foundations for Atlantica,” Lister said. “We are calling for the public to be included in these decisions that are affecting our communities.”
David Farmer, Baldacci’s chief spokesman, said the protesters’ claims are untrue. He said independent journalists and other media organizations have been given credentials to the conference, so there will be very little that is hidden from public view. He said the elected governors and premiers are meeting to discuss ways to help average citizens on both sides of the border, not just business interests.
“There’s nothing anti-democratic about that,” Farmer said. “The whole thing is very much in the open. The only exception is a few meals.”
Police officers from many law enforcement agencies such as Maine State Police, Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, Maine Marine Patrol and even the Maine Forest Service are in Bar Harbor to make sure the venue and event are safe for the elected executives. Nate Young, the local chief of police, said such precautions are routine whenever and wherever the governors and premiers convene.
A surprise appearance was made by Hall of Fame baseball player Cal Ripken Jr., who was in Maine as host to the governors and premiers at a fundraiser golf tournament for the Boys & Girls Club and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The benefit was held at the Belgrade Lakes Golf Course in Belgrade.
The former Baltimore Oriole walked in behind Baldacci and Graham for the press conference at the Bar Harbor Club, eliciting looks of surprise from the media and others gathered in the room. The baseball great had followed the officials to Bar Harbor to enjoy the scenery and to help drum up attention for his charities.
When asked by a reporter what advice he might have for the governors and premiers during their conference, Ripken, who holds the record for most consecutive games played (2,632) said, “Push through. Push through and get through to the next day and the next challenge.”