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.
A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....
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