BUCKSPORT, Maine — While there are many questions and few solid answers now swirling about the future of the Verso paper mill and the 500-plus people employed there, lots of folks in Bucksport can agree that their community is at a crossroads.
Many vacant storefronts dotted the business block of Bucksport long before last week’s announcement that unless a buyer is found, the paper mill will close by the end of the year.
“Eighty percent of the money that’s made here is spent somewhere else,” BookStacks owner Andy Lacher said this week, adding that he does not anticipate the mill closure having a significant effect on his business. “There are too many empty stores. We were suffering while [the mill] was thriving.”
He said that geographically, Bucksport is in the middle of everything — about 18 miles from Ellsworth, Bangor, Belfast, Blue Hill and Castine. U.S. Route 1 brings carload after carload of tourists right next to downtown Bucksport during the busy summer season. In fact, the town’s new, unofficial slogan, is “Bucksport: Center of the Known Universe.” The motto was embedded last spring in the town’s Waterfront Walkway, which stretches along the banks of the Penobscot River and provides dazzling views of Fort Knox in Prospect and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
However, Lacher and others said that being an easy drive to other places has not always benefited the town.
“Bucksport is the bedroom,” he said. “People who live here are just going to go somewhere else.”
He and others said this week they hope Bucksport will emulate the success of Belfast, which has reinvented itself as a diverse business and arts-focused community after catastrophically losing shoemaking and chicken-processing industries in the 1980s.
Belfast Councilor Mike Hurley said this week that his city’s unemployment rate shot up to nearly 18 percent after those industries collapsed.
“It was tough times,” he recalled. “When these crises happen, there is a great division of opinion about what to do. You’re going to have a spirited community debate about it. The reality is, I don’t think you replace a giant paper mill. If no one comes along to take it over, you’re not going to come up with a new thing that will pay 45 percent of your property tax.”
“This is a challenge. But long-term, they will be able to reinvent themselves,” he said.
A group of Bucksport business owners, town officials and others with reinvention on their minds met Wednesday night at the Alamo Theatre on Main Street. First, they watched the documentary “Reviving Freedom Mill,” about one man’s quixotic and ultimately successful effort to rebuild a rotting gristmill in rural Waldo County. Then, they talked about what Bucksport could do to revive itself. The event had been planned before the announcement that the Verso mill would close, but the dozens of people in the audience clearly had the paper mill on their minds.
They do not believe the hardscrabble fate of other former mill towns around Maine and New England needs to be Bucksport’s future, too.
“Yes, we had a catastrophe last week, but we still have the community,” said Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington.
When participants were asked to make a list of Bucksport’s assets, the ideas flew from around the room. They included the picturesque waterfront, hiking trails, history, the people and the strong sense of community, the longevity and stability of residents, the creativity of residents, the low cost of housing, location, low crime rate, low property taxes, the Alamo Theatre, the “really beautiful schools,” the working farms and forests, and the walkable downtown.
“The sense of history here is phenomenal,” Jane Lafleur of the Camden-based Friends of Midcoast Maine, who moderated the event, said. She said she took a few moments before the meeting to explore the community. “Amazing houses. Amazing, tree-lined streets. For someone who hasn’t turned left at the lights a lot, it was incredible.”
Although the community members present did not make any firm decisions that night about how to get more people to get off Route 1 and into their town, the discussion was a good start, they said.
“It was terrific,” resident Christopher Johnson said after the event. “It’s brought people together that are anxious to get going. It started the process of communication. The mill has been a great, 84-year ride, but we’re excited now. We have to embrace change. It’s coming.”