The owner of Bucksport’s former Verso Paper mill site has collected dozens of ideas for turning the site into the economic engine it once was.
Working with town officials, an economic development agency and interested residents, site owner American Iron and Metal released a 121-page document earlier this month called the AIM Development Action Plan for Tomorrow, or ADAPT.
Assembled by Elan Planning, Design & Landscape Architecture PLLC, a Saratoga Springs, New York-based consulting firm, the report is the first step toward drawing large enough sums of grant money to help transform the mill site and downtown and help Hancock County recover from the 2014 closure of the paper mill, which employed 570 people.
Agencies that issue grants large enough to play a role in boosting a local economy won’t hand out money unless the grants fall within a comprehensive plan such as the one Elan has helped create, Town Council Chairman David Keene said.
“It is a guideline. It is a mini-comprehensive plan for the waterfront and the old mill site,” Keene said Monday.
In addition to suggestions for revitalizing the mill site itself, the plan recommends improving the railroad spur onto the Verso site and creating an overall comprehensive plan to guide development in all of Bucksport. Town officials are still studying the report, and the town is already pursuing some of its suggestions, Keene said.
The report, which was a year in the making, is full of statistics and analysis, and it includes more than 70 ideas in its recommendations chapter for the economic transformation of the mill site and downtown Bucksport. They include the following:
Building a cluster of aquaculture, marine and food-related businesses on the mill site and immediately adjacent to it downtown. AIM hopes to capitalize on the anticipated opening of Whole Oceans, a $250 million salmon farm due to break ground at the mill site in spring 2019, and a training annex of Maine Maritime Academy that would eventually draw about 2,400 students and maritime professionals to the site.
According to the 120-page report, the cluster would include research and development space with facilities similar to, though probably smaller than, the Maine Maritime Academy and Whole Oceans facilities. The research facilities would potentially be connected with higher education institutions.
“Classrooms and job-training space for short-term job training and certification programs” and “office space for port/shipping companies utilizing new/enhanced port” would also be included, the report suggests.
A “small aquarium/visitors center” could accommodate visitors interested in aquaculture “and the natural ecology of the Penobscot River,” according to the report.
Creating a “riverfront-enhanced” Main Street dining, entertainment, and business district that could include an expanded town marina with its own restaurant and event space and expanded boat capacity. Town officials already are expanding the town marina.
Bucksport’s Main Street area “has an opportunity to be enhanced into a more vibrant downtown area that takes better advantage of its unique and valuable waterfront location,” according to the report.
“The Main Street area can attract people from around the region to patronize local businesses while enhancing the quality of life for existing residents,” the report continues.
Creating a comprehensive marketing and branding strategy for the entire town. Already, the town has started running ads that invite boaters to stop in Bucksport and “dock, dine and shop.”
Working with AIM in a public-private partnership to turn Bucksport into “a major port of commerce and a recognized ‘fourth port’ of Maine.” The state economy “has demand for importing and exporting products through an enhanced port, including aggregate materials such as wood pellets,” the report reads. “For the port to reach its maximum economic potential, public sector support will be needed from the local, region, state, and potentially federal level.”
Working with Pan Am Railways to upgrade the site’s existing rail spur. The spur “has the potential to create a significant multi-modal facility that allows for transferring of cargo between truck, rail, and boat,” according to the report, but “the spur is in need of investment to bring it to operational status.”
Exactly how much that would cost is undetermined.
Eastern Maine Development Corp. received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Program in 2017 to initiate the yearlong rounds of meetings and other study that led to the report, town officials have said.
More meetings are planned. The Town Council will meet Thursday to weigh whether the town should spend money to look into moving an historic society building closer to Main Street, one of the report’s recommendations, Keene said.
Keene warned that the plan could take years to implement and will likely continuingly evolve.
“We’re going to continue to get input from the community, start researching what grants are out there, and see what it is that we really want to do,” he said.
Attempts to contact AIM and Elan officials have been unsuccessful.