MACHIAS, Maine – A $20,000 planning grant from the Maine Department of Conservation will help Machias officials study the feasibility of a river walk, part of a major downtown revitalization program.
Town Manager Betsy Fitzgerald explained that the revitalization plan could take years to finance and accomplish, but the result would be a more attractive, more visitor and business friendly community — one that doesn’t turn its back on the Machais River, the estuary, and the impressive Bad Little Falls waterfall area, but em-braces them and makes them a central part of the community.
The grant was one of 12 Shore and Harbor Grants awarded statewide last week through the Maine Coastal Program at the State Planning Office.
Although many of the grants centered on moorings, shellfish management and erosion control, Machias’s grant focused on the river.
The proposed walk would run from the town’s boat launch at the tidal causeway up the river to Bad Little Falls. Fitzgerald said the grant will be used to research who owns the bordering properties, where there are existing easements, and to look at the existing cribwork along the river and see what the scope of the project would be.
The boardwalk could someday be extended across the river, Fitzgerald said, and encompass walking trails on the opposite side.
Many residents became disillusioned about any revitalization plans after two key people — former Chamber of Commerce director Louise West and Diane Tilton of the Sunrise County Economic Development Council — moved away in 2006. A landscape architect, Sam Coplon Associates of Bar Harbor, had been retained with a $10,000 grant and a matching donation from Machias Savings Bank.
But the steam just went out of the project when the two women, who were the driving forces behind the plans, left.
“It just kind of sat there for a while,” Fitzgerald admitted.
When Kathleen Shannon was hired in July 2007 as the new chamber director, Fitzgerald said she saw an opportunity to renew the project. A visioning forum was held in the fall of 2007 and more than 35 people created a wish list for the downtown area.
“The suggestions were wonderful and exciting,” Fitzgerald said. The group agreed that the top three goals were to emphasize the river, focus on the town’s important history and reinvigorate the downtown area.
Fitzgerald said the group of volunteers has been meeting regularly and Coplon Associates once again became involved.
A plan was created that divided the downtown section, from the bottom of College Hill to the causeway, into four sections: the southern gateway, downtown, the river, and the northern gateway.
Some of the changes suggested are ongoing, Fitzgerald said, including putting in new pilings and seven floating docks at the town’s boat launch, which is expected to begin this week.
Emphasizing Bad Little Falls Park and its entrance with better signage and an eye-catching trellis was another suggestion. Others including painting more crosswalks on U.S. Route 1 and creating a historical walking tour, removing the parking nodes on Main Street, and replace the chain link fence at a burned out site with a more attractive barrier.
Maria Griggs of Phish Net wrote a grant for the town, Fitzgerald said, and obtained $7,878 for bushes and trees from the Maine Forest Service’s Project Canopy. The project will go out to bid in July and plantings will be at the train station, in Bad Little Falls Park and on Colonial Way.
Another suggestion was to reconfigure the town parking lot along the river. “We won’t reduce the number of parking spaces but we can create a park that will border the river walk,” she said.
Another small park will be created on a lot next to Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, which donated the property to the town. “We’ll clean it up and put in some benches and tables,” the manager said.
The town is also using a $10,000 Maine Community Grant and a $10,000 local match to renovate the former train station to become the home of the local chamber of commerce. “We are about two-thirds done,” Fitzgerald said. “All the work is being done by volunteers.
The town is also eyeing the intersection of Court Street and U.S. Route 1 for reconfiguration and landscaping, she said.
“As you can see, there is a tremendous amount of work and planning going on,” she said.
The feasibility study for the river walk project will be placed out to bid in July.
The funding for the grant comes from the leasing of public submerged lands for private uses such as private piers, marinas, and boatyards. These funds are then returned to the public through grants.