HARPSWELL, Maine — The first true sign of spring arrived Tuesday on Bailey Island, as temperatures hovered around 60 degrees and lobstermen painted buoys and repaired traps near Cook’s Lobster & Ale House, just over the historic Cribstone Bridge at the tip of Harpswell.
Nick and Jennifer Charboneau were busy at the 62-year-old restaurant, readying for the second weekend of the new season following an “amazing” 2016, their first full season at the helm of the waterfront restaurant that has been featured on national television advertising campaigns and multiple travel magazines.
Although the adjacent commercial wharf was still, with lobster boats not yet active for the season, it was the focus of much discussion in the area. Following a preview Wednesday and another next week, the wharf and associated docks and outbuildings will be auctioned “as is” to the highest bidder on April 25.
The outcome of that auction could mean big changes for the fishing community on the island.
For the dozen or so fishermen who moor their boats in tiny Garrison’s Cove and fish off the wharf, maintaining a commercial operation is critical, as it is for the Charboneaus and the Casco Bay Ferry cruise boat that arrives once each day during the summer,
Danny Coffin, whose lobster boat, the Twisted Halo, is moored in Garrison’s Cove, said Tuesday that while the wharf has fallen into disrepair in recent years, “we need it.”
In 2015, the Charboneaus bought the restaurant at auction for $1.25 million after previous owner Norman C. Parent sought bankruptcy protection. Parent, who lives nearby on the cove, kept the wharf, leasing it to Eastern Traders, which buys lobsters and sells them to Canadian processors.
That property includes about 9,000 square feet of decked area, about 420 feet of semi-tidal shore frontage, an insulated and cooled bait shack, a tank room/office and multiple floats and ramps, according to the listing. All will be auctioned later this month by Mike Carey of Transon Auction House in Portland, on behalf of the bankruptcy trustee, Carey said Tuesday.
Carey will serve as auctioneer and will accept bids from anyone willing to front a $50,000 deposit.
Carey said he couldn’t peg a likely buyer, though the listing boasts, “Easy access by boat to points north, south, east and west enhance this property’s intrinsic value as a lobster buying location.”
“I see it as potentially a continued use but potentially some other redevelopment,” he said. While some zoning and other restrictions on the property may exist — Carey said he wasn’t yet clear what they were — a private commercial development “is not impossible.”
Carey said a drafted purchase-and-sale agreement gives the winning bidder the right to accept or reject the current lease with Eastern Traders.
“In terms of the use, in terms of the hopes and dreams of what people hope to do with it, it’s up to the individual purchaser to make those decisions,” he said.
Harbormaster Jim Hayes said Tuesday that the wharf is zoned for a “marine-related business” but acknowledged that a private marina would qualify.
However, he said the 23 moorings in the small cove are all taken, and only one is allotted to the wharf owner.
Moorings are privately owned, on state property — because the state owns everything below the low water line — and managed by the town of Harpswell through the harbormaster. Hayes said 10 names are on his waiting list for one of the 23 moorings in the small cove.
“That’s where the rub would be,” Hayes said. Moorings are given out on first-come, first-served basis, and once someone has a mooring, you can’t take it away unless they don’t qualify — unless they don’t have boat or a purpose for the mooring.”
Nick Charboneau said the couple plans to bid on the wharf, and will make an offer keeping in mind that it needs about $500,000 in renovations.
The property was assessed at $469,400 in 2015, according to tax records.
The restaurant, Jennifer Charboneau said, “has done very well. Sales are up 50 percent over the previous year, and we’re on track to do the same this year.”
With corporate events and weddings on the schedule, as well as concerts including Maine favorites Motor Booty Affair slated for July 1, along with the annual fireworks, the couple is still adding restaurant staff, which reaches about 60 near the height of the season.
Nick Charboneau said that if they’re the winning bidders, “we would keep it as is. It runs itself, and if we can benefit from owning it,” all the better.
General manager Mary Coombs, who grew up on the island and worked for the restaurant’s previous owner, said the Charboneaus have been warmly welcomed by locals, likely because despite improvements and menu upgrades such as “lobster wontons”, they haven’t made too many changes. In fact, on Monday night, the employees threw the couple an anniversary party to celebrate the new season.
“Not too many places would embrace somebody new like this,” she said. “We appreciate that they’re keeping it the small community restaurant it was.”
Coffin said with the moorings at capacity — “the cove is pretty cramped up” — and given the location of the cove, he hopes no one is pondering a private marina.
“We get some bad blows out of there from the northeast,” he said.
If the wharf was lost to working fishermen, Coffin said he and others would still moor in the cove but would have to travel to buy bait and then again to sell their catch before returning to their moorings.
“At [nearby] Mackerel Cove, with all those boats, you’d be in line an hour to get bait and then have to go all the way back,” he said. “It used to be, when [Parent] had an interest in it, they would work on it every spring. Now it’s gone to hell. I don’t know why [they] didn’t friggin’ sell it [during the original bankruptcy proceedings]. I hope that happens now.”
Preview of the property were scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday and April 18. The auction will start at 11 a.m. April 25.