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When the paper mill in Bucksport closed five years ago, it sent a shockwave through the region. Verso Paper employed about 570 people at the time, paid nearly half of the town’s property taxes and supported many ancillary businesses.
But since then, the town of roughly 5,000 people has surprised many people with its resilience.
Even though the mill was sold to a scrap metal recycler that has slowly been dismantling it, a series of small businesses have opened in town, there has been an uptick in home sales and local officials have avoided drastically raising taxes to make up for the lost revenue.
What’s more, two larger entities, a land-based salmon farm and Maine Maritime Academy, are both planning major developments on the mill site.
During an event Tuesday night, Town Manager Susan Lessard was quick to point out that the town has not counted on those two large developments. Rather, Bucksport’s recent success has had more to do with its preparations in the years leading up to the mill closure and the spirit its people have carried since.
“Nobody has stopped and waited for that site to save this community,” Lessard said. “All that’s happened has happened without one dollar of additional investment on that site.”
Lessard was one of a couple participants in a panel discussion that was organized by the Bangor Daily News to discuss how the town of Bucksport has responded to the closure of a large employer — a subject that is relevant to a number of Maine communities that have lost paper mills and other large businesses in recent years.
About 50 people attended the event, which was held at the Alamo Theatre.
Another speaker was Richard Rosen, the owner of a former department store in Bucksport who also served in the Maine Legislature and more recently worked in Augusta as the director of the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management.
The panel also included two BDN staffers, Hancock County reporter Nick Sambides Jr. and Managing Editor Dan MacLeod, an Orland native who moderated the talk.
Bucksport made a number of decisions in the years before and after the mill closure that have helped it weather the changes, according to Lessard. It lessened its reliance on the paper mill for property taxes beforehand, and afterward made subtle but strategic changes that have resulted in cost savings. The town has also benefited from its proximity to a couple eastern Maine cities, its access to water and the presence of industrial infrastructure.
But Lessard — who managed several other Maine communities before coming to Bucksport in 2015 — also pointed to a more surprising asset: Bucksport’s residents know how to disagree with each other.
“I’m blessed with a [Town Council] with extraordinarily different views,” she said. “But all views are respected and represented. They debate passionately sometimes, but they leave meetings in a civil, cooperative way … If you ever have to lose anything, don’t lose that. That’s the hallmark that separates Bucksport from others.”
Going forward, Lessard said she thinks the town will continue to grow in a mix of areas including seafood processing, waterfront recreation, tourism and the arts. She said that cruise ships were docked in Bucksport nearly every weekend of last summer, and the town can continue to grow its local marina.
Rosen said he was pleasantly surprised by the initiative Bucksport residents showed in the years after the mill closure to go through community planning programs, establish a vision and start to pursue it.
He projected that the school department based in Bucksport, Regional School Unit 25, will continue to evolve and become a magnet to young families across the region. He also said that attracting seasonal residents may be a more valuable goal than trying to become a tourist hub.
Rosen also praised how receptive the town’s residents and the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce have been to new employers.
“The chamber has done a great job welcoming businesses,” he said. “It sounds ordinary to say that, but it’s really quite extraordinary.”