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HAMPDEN, Maine — Hamlin’s Marina general manager Dan Higgins had no idea what a simple idea for business expansion would lead to but four years later he’s glad to be back to just selling boats.
His idea resulted in the expansion of his and another business, an environmentally restored riverfront — which had been polluted by about 140,000 gallons of oil — and a plan for an 8½-acre, $800,000 shorefront park featuring walking trails, an improved fueling and boat dock, a new canoe and kayak launch, and public restrooms.
“What started out as a small-business request ended with the involvement of five state agencies, two federal agencies, the attorney general’s office, a multibillion-dollar national corporation, the town of Hampden and little Hamlin’s Marina,” said Dean Bennett, Hampden’s community and economic development director. “All of them came together to make this possible. You can’t find a better case study.”
Higgins’ proposal to Bennett in 2008 was simple: He wanted to buy the undeveloped town-owned peninsula land he was leasing next to his marina operations. After further discussion, that idea turned into Hamlin’s swapping its peninsula property for the seven acres owned by the town that his Hamlin’s Marina boat showroom and garage were sitting on.
The swap would give Hamlin’s expanded retail and parking space and allow the town to expand its Turtle Head Marina to include additional dock space, a park, trails and other amenities.
It was a unique opportunity for Hampden to expand its waterfront amenities.
Then came the details, in the form of ordinances and laws; environmental, historical and archaeological surveys; and land appraisals. The surveys were completed — and paid for to the tune of about $23,000 — over several months, with costs shared by the town and Hamlin’s. Both pieces of land were appraised at more than $500,000.
“Everything came in just right,” said Bennett.
Meanwhile, Chevron was looking for a remediation credit opportunity to build public good will and avoid stiffer fines from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which had discovered that tanks sold by Chevron to Gulf Oil Corp. in the mid-1980s had leaked into the Penobscot River over a 20-year period of time.
One day in the spring of 2010, a man from Lawrence, Kan., stopped in Hampden for a burger.
“Dr. Adrian Delnevo of Applied Ecological Solutions was checking areas along the Penobscot River and just happened to pull into Turtle Head Marina, and just happened to decide to eat at the snack shack,” Bennett said.
“He said he was a consultant looking for a nonprofit or environmentally enhancing riverfront project,” said Higgins. “He gave me his card, but I was suspicious so I sent him to the town office to make sure he was legit.”
Within an hour, the two men were touring the site on a golf cart.
“You could see his excitement building,” said Higgins.
It was just the type of project Delnevo’s employer, Chevron, was looking for.
“It was a good project and a perfect fit here with respect to our liabilities,” said Chevron spokesman Stan Luckoski. “If you look at it from our perspective, we’ve been a part of that community for a long time. And any time we can help to make a project happen that leaves a strong, positive legacy for the community, as well as our company, it’s a great thing for everyone involved.”
In the ensuing months, opportunity knocked again for Higgins as the Sterns Lumber Co. building — just down the road on U.S. Route 1A from Hamlin’s original location — went up for sale.
“That’s a prime location, visibility and accessibility-wise,” said Higgins.
Hamlin’s bought the Sterns property in 2011 and moved its showroom there that year.
The two-story, 10,000-square-foot sales building is the largest boat showroom in the state, according to Higgins, but it was a good news/bad news development.
“Our whole business model changed with our expansion,” said Higgins.
While business was good despite an economy that had taken a downturn, the purchase of the Sterns building put a crimp on working capital for Hamlin’s and the April 2011 expiration date on the option to buy the peninsula was fast approaching.
“Dave Hamlin decided to gamble and bought the [peninsula] land,” said Bennett, referring to the founder of Waterville-based Hamlin’s. “It was a savvy move, and he really saved the project with it.”
With the $250,000 peninsula purchase and the significant cost of buying and renovating a new showroom, Higgins felt like a man in the middle of a room stretching as far as he could to keep doors on opposite sides open.
While Higgins and Hamlin wondered how long they could hold the doors open, the folks from Chevron walked through one of them to help out.
“Chevron wrote a $250,000 check to Hamlin’s for a one-year lease with an option to buy [the peninsula land],” Bennett said. By doing so, Chevron provided Hamlin’s with more time and a cash infusion which would enable the larger land swap to proceed, thereby paving the way for the town to create its shorefront park on the peninsula.
If negotiations fell through, Hamlin’s would be allowed to pay the money back within a year.
Word of the project, combined with Chevron’s involvement, was enough to convince McLaughlin Seafood owners Reid and Kimberly McLaughlin to invest significantly by buying the former Hamlin’s showroom and turning it into a restaurant.
“When you ask me at what point I knew it was going to work, it was when a corporation like Chevron was willing to help fund a small business like us just to keep this deal alive,” said Higgins. “We purchased the option even though we really weren’t in a position to do so financially, so we really had to believe in this whole thing.”
That faith got Higgins through a nerve-wracking, 48-hour period when he went from thinking the land-swap deal was dead to being notified that it had been approved by the DEP.
“Around February in 2011, we were told it didn’t look favorable,” Higgins recalled. “The state didn’t believe the proposed settlement with Chevron was enough and there were questions if it met DEP requirements.”
That spurred a furious lobbying effort by town and state officials, including Andre Cushing, a Hampden town councilor and state representative. Sue Lessard wrote a letter to the DEP both in her standing as town manager and chairwoman of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection.
“Everyone weighed in on this,” she said. “We were pulling in the same direction for the success of this project, which was really serendipitous almost from the beginning.”
The effort apparently paid off as the DEP eventually approved the land-swap deal, which called for a $900,000 payment from Chevron with $520,000 going to Hampden, last June.
“When I found out, I was like ‘Yes!’” said Lessard. “It made me want to dance around in the parking lot.”
The deal offered something for everyone.
“The state got the penalty payment it desired for the situation, the town got to move forward with a permanent, funded environmental project that benefits everyone and not just Hampden. Hamlin’s and McLaughlin’s both get to grow their businesses, and Chevron got to resolve a violation that’s been unable to be resolved for quite some time in a very responsible environmental manner — in the same area that was originally affected,” Bennett said.
“It sounds corny and cheesy, but it really seems like one of those small-town miracles,” said Higgins.