EASTPORT, Maine — A community development consulting team that began working this fall with Eastport community leaders submitted a report Tuesday that outlines community strengths and needs, as well as “suggested next steps.”
Three Smart Growth America consultants met in late September with city officials and other interested community leaders in a two-day workshop that facilitated an exchange of ideas for mapping the historic port community’s social and economic future.
Through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Eastport is one of 15 cities and towns nationwide selected by the EPA to work with the Washington, D.C.-based firm, which advocates for comprehensive planning that can help communities such as Eastport maintain and sustain its small-town charm in economically viable and eco-friendly ways.
Communities as large as New Orleans were selected for the program, as was the Northern Maine Development Commission, which is based in Caribou.
The 15-page report outlines both perceived strengths and weaknesses and suggests strategies for working through both. Among the key issues facing the community is the high cost of energy, the report says.
“It was clear from the workshop that energy use is a key issue in Eastport,” the report said. “Many homes and businesses in Eastport are dependent on oil use.
Environmental considerations aside, oil use has become an affordability problem for many households and property owners. As such, energy has become an issue that is hampering community vitality and local economic development. Businesses and residents struggle to heat their businesses and homes in the winter.”
The report notes that, as the consultants have seen in other communities with which they work, there’s a divergence of opinion as to how best to move forward.
“Folks are split about how to approach the problem — or even about how to acknowledge that a problem exists,” the report said. “The progressives want to change and don’t need to be convinced to do so. The traditional ‘business’ folks don’t want to burden or scare off future economic development opportunities, and much of the community feels powerless to make change, accepting the status quo as the only option. The only way to get beyond this is to have an open, transparent and engaging process that involves all interests and finds common ground for the community’s future.”
High unemployment also is identified as an issue, but the report sees opportunities on Eastport’s economic horizon.
“Comments at the workshop suggested that the unemployment rate in Eastport is 15-20 percent, and average incomes are low compared to national averages,” it said. “Investing in change will be difficult given these circumstances. That said, the opportunity for change is great.’
A list of what the report terms Eastport’s “strong assets includes emerging, strong community leadership, the city’s port and terminal facilities, its array of architectural styles and a growing sense of community pride and local investment.
“The Eastport community has been experiencing some recent redevelopment activity and local investment in existing and new businesses, including projects at the Port, local food production and delivery services, the Tides Institute, and enhanced and rehabilitated local buildings and businesses.”
As for recommended “next steps,” the consulting team suggests the community build on the momentum of recent redevelopment activity and private investment.
“There will be more growth and more changes in the community as new residents and businesses come to the area,” the report predicted. “Now is the time to prepare for this growth and change.”
Much of the report addressed the challenges presented by the high cost of energy in the region and points to potential strategies for retrofitting old residential and commercial buildings to be more energy efficient and finding alternatives to reliance on heating oil as the predominant fuel source.
“Reducing the use of heating oil in Eastport would generate significant environmental benefits through the reduction of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions. Maine has one of the highest GHG footprints per capita of any other state in the country because of its use of heating oil. Converting to low-emission and/or renewable fuel sources is a huge opportunity for Eastport.”
What happens next in this community self-review effort is up to Eastport, said Roger Millar, a civil engineer, Smart Growth vice president and one of three consultants who ran the September workshop in Eastport.
“That’s a question for the town to answer,” he said Tuesday. “We expect they will make some recommendations about how best to go forward.”
City Manager Jonathan Southern had not yet seen the report Tuesday morning and was not available to comment in the afternoon. Other local leaders also had not yet seen the report or had an opportunity to review it for comment Tuesday.