Eastport taxpayers finally escape expensive Boat School subsidies

Posted Dec. 18, 2011, at 12:28 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 18, 2011, at 5:42 p.m.
Eastport City Manager Jon Southern
Eastport City Manager Jon Southern
An aerial view of the Eastport Boat School facility.
Courtesy of James Lowe
An aerial view of the Eastport Boat School facility.

EASTPORT, Maine — Eastport’s taxpayers are no longer footing the bill to keep New England’s oldest boat building school above water.

Three buildings and 17 acres associated with The Eastport Boat School on Deep Cove Road recently were sold by the city for $300,000 to Perry Marine and Construction. That firm is turning over 8 acres and three buildings associated with the boat school facility to a nonprofit friends group, while making plans to build an underwater turbine manufacturing facility on an adjacent building site. A ceremony in which city officials handed over the keys to the Washington County facility was held last week.

The transaction also involved Perry Marine and Construction providing the city with an additional $75,000 that will be used to develop a seaside park and a new public boat ramp near the entrance to Shackford Head State Park.

Of the 45 acres associated with the property, which was deeded to the city in 2007 by the state of Maine after the Washington County Community College abandoned its boat building curriculum, the city retains ownership of 28 acres. More importantly, said Eastport City Manager Jon Southern, the city can walk away from what has been an expensive obligation to keep the boat building school up and running during failed attempts by Husson College to attract enough enrollment to make the school self-sustaining.

“They needed 50 students to make it viable, and that never happened,” Southern said. “At the same time there was strong feeling within the community that the tradition here of boat building be preserved, but it has been an extremely costly facility to run. We were paying 100 percent of the bills, and getting pennies on the dollar from the few tenants that were out there. Depending on the weather, we were spending $158,000 to $170,000 a year and have been unable to afford any facility maintenance. In the winter months, it was not unusual for the antiquated heating system to burn 1,000 gallons of fuel a day.

“Meanwhile, the city’s infrastructure is crumbling, and we are cutting funding to the schools,” he said. “The tax rate is going up, and people are losing their houses to foreclosures, all while we are funding a boat school that was just limping by.”

John Miller, a former boat school administrator and an Eastport City Council member, sees the sale as a best-case scenario. “This is a win, win, win for Eastport, the boat school, job retention and creation in Maine’s most economically challenged region,” he said. “It puts the school on solid footing and provides a tremendous growth opportunity for Perry Marine and Construction. At the same time it gets this giant gorilla off the back of the city and out of the pockets of my neighbors.”

The boat building school has been a fixture in the Eastport community for 40 years. At one point, Southern said, 400 Eastport residents signed a petition to keep the school up and running, despite the costs. Since the property was deeded to the city for $1 in 2007, the city has invested more than $600,000 to sustain it.

Southern had been negotiating the sale of the property to David Marlow, whose Florida-based Marlow Yacht firm builds what are widely acknowledged as the finest yachts in the world. That deal fell through for reasons Southern said he doesn’t fully understand, reasons Marlow chooses not to discuss.

“The best use of the property was to transition to a private owner, and David Marlow seemed very interested in bringing back boat building apprentice programs and reviving the boat building trade that was compatible with this community,” Southern said. “He certainly had the history and the resources. He left the table for what I can only assume were personal reasons, and Eastport was left holding an empty can. Instead of a pot of gold, we wound up with an empty pot.”

Marlow did not respond to a Bangor Daily News interview request.

There has been some grumbling and one effort to legally block the sale by Eastport residents who feel the $300,000 selling price is too low. The property was appraised many years ago at $2 million when it was a factory that processed fish scales as a paint additive. Naysayers aside, Southern said he’s thrilled to see it sold.

“With the easements in place and the fact that it’s zoned for marine trade use, selling it was an almost impossible task,” he said. “It’s not like it’s zoned to allow construction of luxury condos, and some of that property used to be a municipal dump, which was a problem.”

Southern said he’s eager to see Perry Marine and Construction erect its new facility for assembling tidal generation hardware for Ocean Renewable Power Co., which has been developing underwater turbine technology in Eastport since 2004.

“ORPC will really put Eastport on the map as an alternative power center,” Southern said. “They’ve been a really responsible tenant of the city for many years.”

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