It’s been profiled by a national magazine, received praise from the mayor of New York City and enjoyed fleeting fame for having Texas cattle run through its streets, but despite all this attention Eastport continues to struggle in attracting the one thing it really wants: more people.
Like many rural communities in Maine, and the state as a whole, Eastport has been fighting and mostly losing a demographic battle for decades. A low birth rate — combined with an aging populace and an increasingly global economy that makes rural jobs hard to come by — has resulted in fewer and fewer residents, which in turn makes it harder to sustain local businesses and provide the governmental services on which local residents rely.
Eastport had a population of more than 5,300 in 1900, when it was the busiest sardine-canning port in the state, but since then the number of people who now call the city home has shrunk by more than three-quarters.
As of 2018, eight years after the last sardine cannery in Maine shut down, Eastport had an estimated population of roughly 1,250 residents, according to federal census figures, making it the smallest city in Maine — and 5 percent smaller than it was just eight years earlier.
“The focus needs to be on [attracting] younger families,” said Chris Gardner, executive director of the city’s port authority and a product of the local school system.
He noted that the city’s school population has declined sharply over several years. In October 2009, Shead High School enrolled 123 students, but a year ago, its enrollment was down to 83 — a decline of 33 percent in 10 years, according to the Maine Department of Education.
“That’s a big deal,” Gardner said. “We have to find a way to go young.”
City officials and residents are hoping that national news stories about Eastport in recent years, most of them positive, will help draw interest.
James Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic magazine, has profiled the city a couple of times and included a chapter on Eastport in “Our Towns,” a book he co-wrote with his wife, Deborah Fallows. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, until recently a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 election, has visited the city twice in as many years to visit his aunt and to speak at the Eastport Arts Center.
And earlier this decade, Eastport got widespread attention for exporting cattle to Turkey from its local marine shipping terminal, largely due to the odd combination of having cowboys and pregnant Texas cows show up regularly in a small New England city for the long maritime voyages to the Middle East.
“I think it brought Eastport to the attention of the nation,” Ross Argir, Eastport’s city manager, said of the resulting news stories.
Noting the city’s relatively isolated location, seven miles from Route 1 on an island overlooking the Canadian border, the attention is welcome, Argir added, because it is not the sort of place people discover while passing through.
“You don’t find Eastport by accident,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, many of Eastport’s flirtations with the limelight or lasting development have come up empty or been short lived.
In 2001, a television crew filmed a new “reality” TV show in Eastport called “ Murder in Small Town X,” which later would air nationwide on FOX. During production, the company erected and later left behind a tall fisherman statue by the waterfront that since has become one of the city’s most visible symbols. However, the statue has proved to be much more enduring than the TV series, which was canceled after the first season and has largely been forgotten.
A couple of years later, energy developers set their sights on the Eastport area by proposing to construct multi-hundred-million-dollar liquefied natural gas import terminals at Pleasant Point, located directly next to the road that connects Eastport from Route 1, and in the nearby town of Robbinston. Those proposals flamed out before they were approved, however, as domestic fracking became more economically attractive to energy firms than importing liquefied natural gas.
In 2017, a plan to convert a hulking former sardine can factory in the middle of the city’s downtown into a waterfront hotel was shelved after the lead developer in the project was sued over a separate project in Kansas City. The three-story, 28,800-square-foot building at 15 Sea St. remains vacant and boarded up.
And the cow shipments? After starting up in 2010, they came to a halt four years later, a consequence of instability in Turkey brought on by the war in Syria.
“We’ve seen a little bit of a downturn,” Gardner said of the terminal’s cargo volume. The pulp and tissue mill 35 miles away in Baileyville remains its biggest customer, he said, but it does not export its products overseas as much as it used to.
He added that port officials remain optimistic that a $10 million investment of state and federal funds a few years ago for bulk storage and conveyor equipment — installed so the terminal could exports low-grade wood chips — will prove worthwhile. Global demand for the chips, a byproduct of Maine logging operations that are used primarily as biomass fuel, has yet to take off, but Gardner said he thinks it will sooner or later.
“Sometimes you have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to you,” he said.
One thing that has taken root in Eastport, and that is directly focused on drawing people to the city, is the Tides Institute and Museum of Art.
Hugh French, an Eastport native and the Tides Institute director, said recently that when the organization was founded in 2002, its creators did not want it to be strictly a historical society, a community arts organization or a local marketing group. The board of trustees, made up mostly of people who live outside Maine, wanted to raise Eastport’s profile enough to draw attention from across state and national boundaries.
“We didn’t want to be strictly one thing,” French said, sitting in a high-ceilinged room lined with art and historical artifacts in the institute’s main building on Water Street. Built in 1887 as Eastport Savings Bank, the brick structure is one of seven buildings in the city’s downtown village, including two churches, that the institute owns — a few of which are in need of renovation.
“Art is central to what we do, but we’re also into architecture, historic preservation, and history,” French said. “We want to do things a little differently. One of our purposes is to introduce new things.”
One thing the institute introduced in 2005, and has done every year since as a way to draw people to Eastport, is the maple leaf and sardine drop on New Year’s Eve — the drop of the maple leaf to coincide with Atlantic time in neighboring New Brunswick, and the sardine an hour later to mark the change of the year in Maine.
Since 2013, the institute also has been bringing visual artists from around the country to the city for its artists-in-residence program. For a few weeks, it provides each artist with downtown housing, studio space, and help with transportation, finding materials and more. Some of the resulting works are exhibited in and around Eastport, including at the North Church, which also serves as a venue for performances and multimedia presentations.
Sometimes the work produced by the artists elicits both positive and negative local reviews, but that dynamic response, in a way, is what the institute wants, French acknowledged. The institute wants to preserve and promote Eastport’s history, he said, but it also wants to “create a little excitement,” and for the city to carve out a new identity that will enable it to thrive.
Eastport “can’t survive if the population continues to drop,” French said. “This place is in transition. It has to be in transition and it has to figure out how to be sustainable and to grow a bit.”
There are signs that the city is becoming more of a destination, even if its year-round population continues to stagnate.
According to Gardner, the city’s rebuilt breakwater and pier have brought some life back to the waterfront. After partially collapsing nearly five years ago, the pier was rebuilt in 2017, restoring dock space for commercial fishermen who tie their vessels up to sheltered floats, and again drawing recreational mackerel fishermen who show up by the dozens in the summer to cast lines into the tidal currents along its front edge. It also has brought back cruise ships and, for Eastport’s annual Fourth of July celebration, the occasional Navy vessel.
“Eastport was a different town” without it, said Gardner, whose agency maintains and oversees operations at the pier. “It’s a [community-defining] piece of infrastructure.”
Through a website created by Eastport called telecommute-maine.com, Argir said, city officials have been actively promoting Eastport as a place where people can live while working remotely. The appeal of being able to work remotely may be a reason why Eastport has a significant population of seasonal residents who, he reasoned, are more likely to invest in a summer home and stay longer if they can keep tabs on their jobs online.
And Eastport’s growing appeal as a destination could be why homes in the city appear to be selling more quickly and fetching higher prices, Argir said, citing observations relayed to him by the city assessor and local real estate agents. According to data compiled by the Maine State Housing Authority, the median price for a home in Eastport has risen from $72,500 in 2014 to $111,450 last year.
As the city continues to get more attention, he added, there will be more events and more commerce and hopefully more people looking to stay throughout the year.
“The trend seems to be [moving] in the right direction,” Argir said.