EASTPORT, Maine — One of the last remaining empty buildings located along downtown Eastport’s waterfront is a 28,800-square-foot, three-story brick structure that once housed a factory that 100 years ago made “ring key” cans for packing sardines.
Those behind the ongoing revitalization of Eastport’s downtown commercial center through historic preservation advocacy now see the long-vacant, 1908 Seacoast Canning Co. building at 15 Sea St. as a waterfront landmark that they are eager to bring back to life through adaptive reuse.
The Eastport downtown historic district comprises 31 buildings that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Sea Street building, which has a footprint of just over .7 acres. There are now 30 buildings downtown that house artists’ studios, galleries, museums and shops, with many open year-round, not just during the busy summer tourist season. The downtown also is home to 13 places to eat, including ethnic restaurants offering Greek and Mexican fare.
“Nine years ago, there were 19 downtown buildings that were either empty or boarded up,” said Linda Godfrey of Eastport, who remains in the thick of efforts to sustain downtown revitalization momentum.
Godfrey and two other women — Nancy Asante and Meg McGarvey — formed a partnership, Dirigamus LLC, that in 2005 purchased the old sardine can-making factory. The firm’s name is Latin for “we lead,” Godfrey said, and is a shirttail linguistic relative of the state of Maine’s motto “Dirigo,” which translates “I lead.”
Not long after buying the property, the triumvirate that now owns it commissioned Peter MacKenzie, an architect based in St. John, New Brunswick, to draw concept plans that reflected the new owners’ floor-by-floor vision for the building. The owners are now working with Bangor-based WBRC Architects and Engineers and CCB Construction Services in Westbrook as the project picks up traction.
“It’s an historic building that offers many challenges, as it needs a lot of work,” Godfrey said. “There are two pathways we could take. One would be working with other partners under a creative ownership arrangement as we develop it into a new facility to serve Eastport.”
The second pathway, she said, would be selling the building outright for redevelopment. The building was listed about a year ago at an asking price of $950,000 with the Portland-based Dunham Group. That listing indicates the building is within Eastport’s Shoreland General Development zone, which allows for a variety of office, retail and hospitality uses. The online listing shows annual property taxes for the mothballed building are now $2,919. As a National Register property, it also potentially is eligible for tax credits.
“We are awaiting visits by two entities that may be interested in purchasing it,” Godfrey said. “Their site visits have been delayed by the weather.”
Godfrey and her partners envision a hotel and residential conference center, with ground-level space incorporating displays on Eastport’s rich marine history and ongoing efforts to promote alternative energy systems, including a local facility that fabricates underwater tidal generation technologies.
“It’s a project that has and will take a lot of effort because of the building’s size,” she said. “We’ve already spent a tremendous amount of money on environmental surveys.”
Project architect MacKenzie said in a telephone interview that the “tricky part” of developing the property may be that it is built on piers and piles that could require constant maintenance and could make the property expensive to insure.
“The cost estimates that I made at the time wouldn’t mean anything now, because construction costs are so date-sensitive,” MacKenzie said in a telephone interview. “Certainly it would be a very large-ticket item.”
Godfrey said Wednesday the ultimate cost of adaptive reuse of the property will depend on what development concept is pursued.
“If you opt for a high-end hotel, it could be $9 million, or more,” she said. “If you do something more medium-end, it could be $6 million, more or less,” she said.
A souvenir booklet published in 1908 provides a glimpse into the historic role the Seacoast Canning Co. played in Eastport and neighboring Down East communities.
“All of our Maine cities have attributes that in some especial measure claim and deserve consideration,” the booklet says. “Eastport eclipses all in its sardine industry and lays special claim to the fact that she has the largest sardine and canning industry in the world, that of the Seacoast Canning Co. This important industry was established in 1899 and it was incorporated as the Seacoast Canning Co. in 1903. The building at 15 Sea Street was constructed in 1908 and is known as the American Can Building. The building was home to the Continental Brand of roll key opening can.
“The products produced by the Seacoast Canning Co. are favorably known throughout the civilized world and they have an established reputation for superiority. The specialty of the company is the Continental Brand of sardines which is known for its general excellence throughout the entire world and is a standard for all other manufacturers.”