Bucksport not giving up on plan to bring natural gas downtown

Posted April 27, 2012, at 7:35 p.m.

BUCKSPORT, Maine — A proposal to bring natural gas to downtown Bucksport continues to evolve and move forward albeit at a slower pace than some in town had anticipated.

In recent weeks, the planned route of the infrastructure project has changed in response to stronger interest from businesses located on Main Street. At the same time, Bucksport officials have scheduled a referendum in June to seek voter approval for spending up to $300,000 in town money on the project — $60,000 more than originally planned.

Bangor Gas’ board of directors, meeting earlier this week, was not prepared to give the project the green light despite more than 50 would-be customers along the planned route and another 50 in the vicinity.

Jon Kunz, marketing and sales manager at Bangor Gas, said Friday that the board wants to make sure such a large undertaking is financially feasible given the projected numbers. So Kunz said the board is seeking formal proposals from contractors before voting whether to proceed with an expansion that has been discussed for more than a decade.

“We want this project to go forward,” said Kunz, adding that the company installed a “stub” and connection value at the current terminus at the Verso mill with the idea of one day expanding into town.

Uncertainty over the expansion, however, is complicating things for some customers — most notably RSU 25, which is incorporating anticipated savings from converting to natural gas into its budget for next year.

RSU 25 expects to save more than $100,000 a year by switching from heating oil to natural gas, allowing the school system to recoup the conversion costs in less than two years. But the system’s budget committee also is developing a contingency plan for next year in case the expansion is delayed or nixed by Bangor Gas.

“We have done the engineering work that needs to be done … so we are going to be ready to go once we get a thumbs-up,” said Jim Boothby, RSU 25’s superintendent. “The key thing is we need the commitment from Bangor Gas that this is going forward.”

Boothby said RSU 25’s budget committee also is discussing whether to contribute $25,000 to $30,000 toward the project’s construction in addition to the town’s anticipated contribution.

George MacLeod, owner of MacLeod’s Restaurant on Main Street, said his and other businesses are counting on natural gas in the face of rising energy costs which are eating into or eliminating any profits. MacLeod said that at times it has been difficult for businesses and homeowners to keep track of the status of the expansion.

“Something like this is absolutely critical to our viability as a business,” said MacLeod.

Dave Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director, said Friday that he has asked Bangor Gas for a “fish-or-cut-bait” date for when the company still would be able to complete the project this year in time for next heating season. Milan called the delays “a wee bit frustrating” but added they are part of the process.

Milan said the route was altered to follow Main Street to Elm Street before heading north toward the school complex in response to letters of interest from customers. And Milan remains optimistic that the project will move forward.

In June, Bucksport voters will be asked whether to contribute up to $300,000 toward construction of the gas lines. That money would come from the town’s School Designated Fund, a reserve account with a balance of more than $867,000.

Town officials initially had pledged to contribute up to $240,000 but increased the amount after Bangor Gas officials warned that additional money may be needed to make the project financially viable. Any expenditures above $250,000 require voter approval.

Kunz said Friday, however, that he hopes to keep the town’s contribution around the original $240,000 figure.

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