SEARSPORT, Maine — In another era, the sea captains of Searsport built elegant mansions that rose as temples to the town’s vibrance and prosperity. Today, thousands of cars a day in the summer zoom by these mansions on their way to other places.
Now this town of about 2,600 people is striving to find ways to make more of those cars stop — either for brief tourist visits or for longer stays — as the town tries to find the right mix of economic development that will entice families to move here for good.
“We’ve got to have something in this town to support the tax base. We’ve lost so much over the years,” said Faith Garrold, chairman of the town’s budget advisory committee, which she has served on for 24 years. “People aren’t going to move here with their kids if they can’t make a living.”
Searsport is not alone in that quest. Other communities in Maine had to reinvent themselves, too, in recent decades — Limestone after Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, Belfast after losing its chicken processing plants in the 1980s. Still other towns face that dilemma now, including Millinocket and Bucksport, two towns that relied on their now-shuttered paper mills to provide jobs and a stable tax base for residents. With the mills shut down, those communities, too, are struggling to figure out what is next.
As many in towns and cities all over the state can attest, finding the right recipe is not easy. In Searsport, the struggles are amplified by the way the town often appears polarized. Retirees who moved to Searsport from away can seem at odds with native Mainers. Those who support industrial development seem to have little common ground with those who prefer to focus on protecting the environment.
In the last decade, Searsport has seen battle lines drawn over whether and how to develop Sears Island, a proposal to dredge and enlarge the channel to the port at Mack Point, and whether to allow a massive liquid propane gas tank and terminal facility to be built.
At times the community’s differences have boiled over — such as during the long, divisive fight over the LPG facility a Colorado company wanted to build in town. At one 2012 planning board meeting, a confrontation between local police and tank opponents led to a 75-year-old resident being ejected from the meeting.
Ultimately, the tank project was rejected by the town’s planning board, but some scars left during the fight are still healing, locals said.
“The tank issue was very destructive to the town,” Laurie Schweikert, owner of the Grasshopper Shop on U.S. Route 1, said recently. “I do feel like people, though they may have strong opinions about what kind of economic development needs to come to the town, at least at this point seem willing and open to listening to all ideas. I feel that we’ve sort of turned the corner.”
That’s what municipal officials hope, too, as they reach out to residents to seek input on ways to move Searsport forward. They’ve also hired David Cole, the transportation commissioner during the Baldacci administration and previous head of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, as an interim economic development advisor.
There’s been good response from a survey asking what residents want and don’t want in terms of economic development, according to Town Manager James Gillway, who said that people want Searsport to be proactive.
“For too long, we just sat back and waited for the next big thing to come,” he said. “I think we’re united: Let’s not wait for that anymore.”
In Searsport’s early days, shipbuilders and cargo handlers made fortunes on the high seas.
The town was famous for its sea captains in the mid-1800s and was once home to 10 percent of all American deep-water shipmasters, who traveled around the world to exotic ports on their quest for trade. During the 20th century, the economic base changed. A chemical plant at Kidder Point was important during World War II, and a 200-mile-long jet fuel pipeline was built from Mack Point to the former Loring Air Force Base in Aroostook County during the height of the Cold War.
Although goods still flow through Mack Point and chemicals are still made at Kidder Point, those who remember Searsport a few decades ago say that it has changed, and not for the better. The downtown block is home to businesses, including a bakery, a couple of restaurants, a grocery store, a laundromat, a bookstore and several antique establishments. The bustling Penobscot Marine Museum spreads out on a three-acre downtown campus, and seasonal celebrations, such as the ‘Fling Into Fall,’ bring quite a crowd to town.
But a large building at the heart of the town has been vacant for a year, “for sale” signs mark many of the graceful sea captain’s mansions and some of the lovely brick downtown buildings are empty.
“It’s our goal to have a plan moving forward on what we’re going to do for economic development,” Gillway said.
Cole said last week he didn’t want to share specifics about a draft development strategy for Searsport just yet, but he said that every community and region needs to figure out its assets and then decide how to best leverage them.
“That’s my philosophy,” he said. “Economic development can come from all directions. Bottom-up from new business startups, or global companies looking for a place to locate, and everything in between.”
Gillway said survey respondents have expressed interest in research and development, with quite a few in favor of light industry and small-scale manufacturing as opposed to focusing resources on large industrial plants.
But many in town, including longtime resident Faith Garrold, hope that one industrial asset won’t be overlooked — the second-largest deepwater port in Maine. A proposal to dredge and enlarge the port by the Army Corps of Engineers has created more polarization in the region — between those who believe the $12 million project would pollute Penobscot Bay and harm lobster fishing and those who see it as necessary for safe shipping and navigation.
It took decades of debate before conservationists and transportation planners came to a consensus in 2007 over what to do with state-owned Sears Island, a 941-acre uninhabited island very close to the Mack Point industrial zone in Searsport. The agreement set aside 600 acres for conservation while reserving 341 acres for a possible future port on the west side of the island. That port has yet to be developed.
After the town gave approval for the port, committee members who worked on the plan said that reaching the consensus on Sears Island could, without hyperbole, be compared to making peace in the Middle East.
‘We’ve got to have something’
Garrold, the chair of the budget advisory committee, is not shy about speaking her mind about the town’s challenges and potential.
She said that when her children graduated from Searsport District High School, there were 60 or 70 students per class. Since then class size has been cut in half, to about 30 or 40, she said, which is in part because the town of Frankfort recently withdrew from RSU 20 and now sends most of their students to Hampden Academy.
The Searsport mill rate last year was just over $20 per thousand in assessed property value — in line with the property tax rate in neighboring communities — but with a major change in the school district make-up, residents are concerned their property taxes will go up.
Six of the eight RSU 20 communities successfully withdrew on Election Day, leaving only Searsport and Stockton Springs to support the school budget.
“The same people saying that we can’t afford to pay for our schools — they’re the same ones who don’t want anything to come here to help pay the tax bill,” Garrold said. “We have a port we need to capitalize on. We need to have it dredged to move it to the next century, or that’s going to become a white elephant, too.”
She listed other assets in Searsport such as the “excellent school system, pretty good town leadership and a chemical plant — if we can hang on to it.”
The GAC Chemical Corp. at Kidder Point, dubbed “ Maine’s Chemical Company” in 2011 by Gov. Paul LePage, has been a recent target of controversy by environmental activists who believe contamination from the site is causing ocean acidification.
Steve Tanguay, who runs Searsport Shores campground and is involved with the Head of the Bay Business Alliance, has a different view of Searsport’s future than Garrold.
“I’m more vocal about protecting the resources in the town,” he said this week. “We really have to take care of our own backyard. We have a niche and a cultural resource here that no one else has.”
He said the town has set up economic incentives for companies that do business at the port — but does not incentivize other small businesses in the community.
“There’s a perception that if an outside corporation comes in, that’s the only way we can provide good jobs for people,” he said. “We rest our fate in the hands of others. It gets messy. We have these divided factions that can’t come together on visioning for the future.”
Tanguay said Searsport has made decisions in the last decade based on emotions, not on data. He hopes that will change. He also hopes that people understand that the retirees who have come to Maine, and Searsport, are an economic engine.
The community has become an attractive destination for retirees. According to the 2010 U .S. Census, Searsport’s population is older than most of Maine, with 23.7 percent of residents being age 62 and older as compared to the state average of 19.8 percent.
“Without them, in our town there’d be a lot of derelict houses, no bed and breakfasts, and half the [Penobscot Marine] Museum we have now,” Tanguay said. “The perception is they’re wealthy. They’ve made their money. But they’re the number one tax input in our town.”
In his view, Searsport ought to put resources into creating affordable manufacturing space and encouraging younger people to get involved in local government and become entrepreneurs.
“You hear parents say there’s nothing for kids here. They’ve got to move away. But that’s not bad, necessarily,” Tanguay said. “We’re just a small town. We can’t provide all jobs for all people. We can support young people getting a good education. We want to make a great town for when they want to come back.”
Lots of people in Searsport want their town to be great, including local historian Charlene Farris. She remembers the way the town used to be — a vibrant, busy community with two hardware stores and no vacant downtown windows.
“The town was bright and cheery. Now, the only time it seems bright is Christmas,” she said. “I think we have opportunities to fill these beautiful old brick buildings. It’s a charming little place. I’d like it to be a destination — not just a drive-through.”