BUCKSPORT, Maine — Local officials and residents have been doing a lot of soul searching since the former owner of the defunct local paper mill announced in October 2014 that it planned to permanently shut down the facility.
Now that demolition of the mill has been approved and is underway, and with no large-scale employer or major property taxpayer in line to take its place, people who live and work in the area have decided they need to come together and do their soul searching as a group.
They are getting professional help. Bucksport is getting support from the Shelburne, Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation, which has developed a citizen-led system by which communities explore stories and other sources of local pride and character. The process, called Community Heart & Soul, seeks to involve a wide base of citizen participation and emphasizes preserving what people like about their communities as they develop strategies for future development.
Bucksport has received a $24,000 grant from the Orton foundation to pay for the services of Jane Lafleur of Friends of Midcoast Maine, who served as project director for Damariscotta when it went through a Community Heart & Soul process from 2008 to 2010. Bucksport also has received a $15,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation to help cover other expenses, such as supplies, meeting space and food for project events.
The town itself is investing in the effort, which is expected to be a two-year process, by charging its new community and economic development director to spend 75 percent of his time on the project.
Last fall, the town hired local resident Rich Rotella, 40, to fill a vacancy created when Dave Milan left last summer to take an economic development post with the town of Orono. Rotella, whose annual salary is $50,000, moved to the town position from the local branch of Camden National Bank, where he worked for the past dozen or so years. A Rhode Island native, Rotella had moved with his family to Bucksport after working for MBNA and then Bank of America in Belfast.
He said he helped maintain Bucksport’s municipal accounts as local branch manager at the bank and, away from his job in finance, he has coached soccer and softball at the local middle school.
“I just fell in love [with the town],” Rotella said. “What better way to get involved and help my town than to work with them [as economic development director]?”
On Wednesday, more than 30 people attended an organizational meeting for the local Heart & Soul project at G.H. Jewett School, including Rotella, Regional School Unit 25 Superintendent James Boothby, Bucksport High School Principal Bill Tracy, local Town Councilor Rob Carmichael and regular citizens from Bucksport and surrounding towns. They informally discussed the anticipated process the project would follow and formed eight committees to focus on specific aspects of it: elevator speech, logo design, communication/publicity, data collection, goal setting, soft launch/events, membership and budget/finance.
“We don’t really know where Heart & Soul will take us,” Chris Johnson, a board member with Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust who helped facilitate the meeting, told attendees. “Every town is different.”
Rotella said that, as difficult as the closure of the former mill may be, it has inspired members of the community to come together to determine their future.
“Does the town want to rely on one major taxpayer again?” Rotella said. “We need to come up with a plan.”
A communitywide “celebration” of what people want Bucksport’s future to hold is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, at the Alamo Theatre on Main Street. The next meeting of the Heart & Soul project, which is open to the public, will be held at Bucksport High School from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10.