Re-envisioning a community without a long-time centerpiece employer is no easy task. Yet residents of Bucksport jumped into that task last weekend by sharing their ideas for the future of the town rocked by the closure of the Verso paper mill at the end of 2014.
Ideas small, like a busker festival, and big — new hydropower on the Penobscot River — were put on the table. As is important to any good planning process, residents documented the area’s strengths — a skilled labor force, Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge — framing their work in a positive light.
No one pretends that adapting Bucksport to a future without a paper mill, or with a much smaller industrial facility at the mill site on the banks of the Penobscot River, will be easy or quick. But beginning with dialogue among area residents should result in a homegrown plan that is realistic and appropriate for the area with the necessary built-in support to move forward.
Expectations must also match reality. It is unlikely that one major employer like Verso will come to town. That’s why is it is wise, as was discussed at Saturday’s meeting, for the town to reach out to nearby institutions like Maine Maritime Academy and The Jackson Laboratory to remind them of opportunities in Bucksport.
In Bucksport, the closure of the mill, while long talked about, was abrupt. In communities such as East Millinocket and Old Town, mills have changed ownership and been closed and re-opened. While each iteration of the mills has typically employed fewer people, there’s a natural tendency in an area affected by a mill closure to make reopening the mill the top priority.
While there is distant hope, through a lawsuit currently in federal court, that the Bucksport mill will continue to make paper, town officials and residents are wise to plan for a future with and without papermaking.
The suit, brought by the International Association of Machinists, alleges that the pending sale of the Verso mill to AIM Development, a company that demolished a Verso mill in Minnesota, violates federal antitrust rules.
The U.S. Justice Department in late December approved an agreement for Verso to acquire rival papermaker NewPage. The department dismissed the idea that the Bucksport mill was closed and put up for sale as part of the merger deal.
“Verso contemplated closing the mill before it decided to merge with NewPage,” the Department of Justice’s Dec. 31 statement says. “The United States does not allege the closing of the Bucksport mill is a result of the merger.”
A federal judge plans to rule on the union lawsuit early next week. In the meantime, it’s a wise choice on Bucksport’s part not to hang future economic development hopes on the remote chance the mill will reopen as a papermaking facility.
In simple and direct terms, Town Manager Derik Goodine summed up the need for this work. “We aren’t going anywhere,” he told the crowd Saturday night. “As a community, we have to survive.”