PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Some were outraged. Others were exuberant. But the city couldn’t do anything about the flags endorsing President Donald Trump attached to the “Presque Isle Welcomes You” sign.
Reports first appeared on social media on Sept. 11 that two flags endorsing President Donald Trump’s reelection bid had been hoisted on poles on either side of the “Presque Isle Welcomes You” sign in the city’s south entrance near Westfield.
Several residents complained that the display made it appear as if the city were endorsing Trump. The only issue: the city has no control over the sign. City Manager Martin Puckett said the city did not place the flags, and does not have any records indicating that it owns the southern entrance sign, or the identical northern sign near Caribou.
“We do not have any agreements, easements, leases or permits for the two welcome signs,” Puckett said. “With the sign being located on private property, we would have an agreement or easement and a permit for the installation if it was city-owned.”
The property, which is listed at 424 Houlton Road, is owned by Danny Stewart, according to city assessing records. Stewart is a longtime Presque Isle potato and vegetable farmer who has controlled the Stewart Farms on Presque Isle’s southern edge since high school.
Stewart — who declined to be interviewed — said through an intermediary that the sign had been provided by an anonymous donor. Yet, its present ownership is unclear, with city officials saying they are investigating the matter.
While campaign signs have been common in the last few months, the political use of such an iconic spot for the Star City drew anger from many residents. Ownership of the two welcome signs was a subject of little importance in the past, but the flag incident shows the potential for city landmarks to be used for political or commercial gain.
Many on social media reported that the flags were removed on Sunday, but as of Thursday afternoon, they had reappeared hoisted on tractors on either side of the sign.
Opinion on the flags were primarily partisan, with many supporters of the president endorsing the display. Several of these residents rejected the view that it painted the city as Trump country, and said Stewart could put up any flag he wanted because he owns the property.
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for the Maine Republican National Committee, said that support for the president from Stewart and other farmers was valid because of Trump’s trade policies.
Mahaleris pointed to how Trump had signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement in 2019, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden voted for NAFTA in 1993, when he served in the U.S. Senate, though he has recently qualified his initial support for the deal.
“Farmers in The County and across Maine know they have a true ally in President Trump who re-negotiated the Biden-supported NAFTA program to create a modernized trade deal in the USMCA that finally puts Maine first,” Mahaleris said.
Nicole Leigh of Presque Isle said her community features many perspectives and ideas, and that a sign welcoming visitors and residents should be a warm smile rather than a political slogan.
“We are so much more than political parties here. I take pride in my community’s unity, diversity and compassion,” Leigh said. “This is the image that is truly reflective of our city and should be highlighted.”
Kim Lauritsen of Mapleton said she was appalled to see the flags. Lauritsen, who opposes Trump, said that while the Presque Isle area has many Trump supporters, several other residents oppose what they say are the president’s divisive policies.
“The fact that [Danny Stewart] owns the land certainly does not give him the right to put his political beliefs on Presque Isle,” said Lauritsen, who owned MoonDance Studios in Presque Isle for more than 40 years.
Lauritsen said her outrage had led her to call City Hall several times about the flags. She knew several other people who also planned on doing so.
“To have it shoved in your face right now — it’s a big screw you to the whole community,” Lauritsen said.
Presque Isle is often considered a traditionally Republican area, though neighboring towns in Central Aroostook gave a far larger number of votes to Trump in the 2016 presidential election. About 50 percent of the Star City (2,102 people) voted for Trump in that election, while 42 percent (1,779) voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.