June 21, 2018
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Give thoughtful consideration to dredging Searsport harbor

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
A powerboat pulls alongside a mooring at the Searsport Town Dock on a quiet spring evening.
By Bob Ziegelaar, Special to the BDN

No regular explorer of Maine’s coastal waters could overstate the beauty of Penobscot Bay. It is unequaled along the East Coast. Yet these very same waters have long supported the livelihoods of many Maine families through fisheries and trade, just as Maine’s larger economy has long been based on the state’s available natural resources and related trade. Searsport’s captains’ homes are but one telltale of our state’s famed mercantile past.

Maine needs to sell goods and services across state and national borders to pay for its considerable imports, energy foremost among them. Most of us who live here recognize that we must navigate a careful course between economic need and environmental preservation, in full awareness that we could not hope to protect our unique environment without the employment, incomes and basic services necessary to sustain our state’s population.

Such realities are as clearly reflected in Searsport as anywhere. This historical port managed to successfully blend its maritime trade with tourism attraction and, now that ocean shipping offers renewed commercial opportunity, faces an important question: To welcome new port activity or settle for a more fragile status quo?

Coastal tourism is a four-month proposition at best, whereas the port can operate year-round.

Portland recently attracted its long-sought-after trans-Atlantic shipping line, effectively connecting its waterfront with some of Europe’s largest ports and opening up entirely new opportunities for the processing and distribution of a wide variety of European imports, while effectively positioning itself as an attractive consolidation point for Northeastern exports. The adage “where trade flows the economy grows” is as old as trade itself.

Given Maine’s geography, demography and economic challenges attached, connectivity with national and global markets is as important now as ever. The Portland-Lewiston and Bangor-Searsport regions each offer the prerequisite mix of ocean, air, rail and highway transport logistics.

Eastport’s deep harbor and Calais’ border crossing make for a third important trade junction, and all three regions serve Maine’s primary economic sectors of natural resource-based industry and tourism. Maine’s Atlantic ports are positioned along the boundaries of North America’s Great Northern Forest, a huge natural resource that can be responsibly and sustainably managed for the long term to the benefit of the local economies involved.

To that end it is essential that any added value to the realized production be retained locally, including port processing and facilitation.

Most harbors need to be periodically dredged. Portland has demonstrated that dredging and environmental risk management can be effectively combined and very shortly will do the same again. Without similar maintenance Searsport would be prevented from using its harbor’s more limited waterfront to its full potential.

Tide-restricted shipping schedules effectively reduce the port’s appeal and efficiency and would put a brake on important economic opportunities for Maine’s eastern and northern regions, not just for business for also for many working families. These regions cannot afford to continue losing population, and a reversal of the current trend would have exponentially beneficial consequences for the state at large.

Searsport’s dredging project should not be turned into another polarizing contest of wills. It can be fully evaluated through thoughtful public dialogue, and the project can almost certainly be managed without unacceptable or lasting environmental effect. Working Mainers deserve decision-making based on the fullest consideration of all factors at stake, not just those tied to the declared principles or priorities of any particular group.

Bob Ziegelaar is affiliated with the Old Town-based James W. Sewall Co. and is a member of the Maine Port Authority. He previously served as president of Telford Aviation and as director of Bangor International Airport.

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