Route Fifty Roadmap: Penobscot River Town Seeks Life After Paper

Bucksport, Maine

Bucksport, Maine Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty

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Route Fifty Roadmap is an ongoing series of dispatches from the semi-regular travels of the Route Fifty staff around the United States. | PREVIOUSLY: Kalamazoo, Michigan

BUCKSPORT, Maine Paper was king in this small town on the Penobscot River until October 2014, when the Verso Paper Mill laid off 572 workers and shut down for good. And now, 20 months later, the question is still: What next?

In the fading sunlight earlier this month, I paused to take a photograph of the huge mill, and of the sparkling town waterfront, from across the Penobscot River. The mill complex, including a power generating plant whose towering smokestacks dominate the landscape, seemed to rival the town for dominance along the river’s banks.

Verso Paper Mill. (Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

From my vantage point at historic Fort Knox, the mill complex seemed intact. Then I drove across the spectacular, 10-year old Penobscot Narrows Bridge, whose unique construction, the state boasts on its web site , “is the crown jewel of coastal Maine, offering spectacular 360-degree views of the Penobscot River and Bay, the Maine countryside and the distant western mountains.”

I continued through town to the back of the Verso complex. There I could see ongoing work to demolish many of the buildings on the 250-acre site. A sign on the gate to the facility warned starkly against photography, but hey, it’s a free country, so my camera documented demolition visible from the adjacent road.

Demolition at the Verso complex. (Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

Closing of the Verso plant was one marker in the steady, dramatic decline of the paper industry in Maine. It was not the last. In March, Madison Paper announced it would close last month. As the Portland Press-Herald reported then :

Madison Paper will be the fifth Maine mill to shut down in a little over two years, and its closure will leave just six mills operating in the state. Once employing more than 18,000 workers at its height in the 1960s, the state’s paper-making industry has lost more than 1,500 jobs in the past two years and 2,300 since 2011.

Closure of the mill in Madison cost 200 jobs, and statewide industry employment is now below 4,000. U.S. Sen. Angus King was quoted by the Press-Herald as saying:

“This is the economic effect of a hurricane. I believe it is a crisis and it’s happened, in one sense, in slow motion but really not. It’s been just a few years where we’ve seen this dramatic impact on our industry in Maine and across the country.”

In Bucksport, as elsewhere, town officials are searching for solutions to the economic woes the closures have caused. For 84 years, the town was defined by the mill, officials acknowledged. But now Mayor David G. Keene says, in a video the town produced, that Bucksport must “move on from the stigma of being a mill town.” He and Richard Rotella, Community and Economic Development Director for the town, are seeking solutions.

Rotella reports that one fourth of the 572 people laid off by Verso were Bucksport residents and that 85 percent of them have found new work, gone back to school, retired or started their own businesses. They and others laid off were assisted for a full year by experts from the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, who ran a retraining and placement center in the adjacent town of Orono.

The Verso mill was purchased by AIM Development, a subsidiary of Montreal-based scrap metal dealer American Iron & Metal. AIM hopes to profit from metal it can salvage from the demolition. At first, demolition proceeded slowly and stopped for several weeks while the first contractor was replaced by another. But, Rotella says, the most important, first phase of demolition will be finished by the beginning of 2017.

The town will then have the largest commercial development site in the state of Maine, Rotella says.

So far, no company has stepped forward with plans to use the waterside site, although the Maine Maritime Academy is reportedly considering locating a training facility there.

Bucksport boast strengths that should help it recover from the Verso closure. An industrial park now has nine occupants, including a big lobster processing plant. It is in the process of creating 10 new sites companies can occupy, bringing the total to 20.

Keene notes that Bucksport public schools are big enough to support good athletic and enrichment programs. The town’s 4,926 residents skew to the older end of the age spectrum, Rotella says. It was the first to be designated by the state as an “age-friendly” town. Rotella is running a “heart and soul” process of interviews among residents to help chart the future of the town.

With its deep-water port, fully occupied marina and other recreational opportunities, Bucksport seems a fine place to live. And it’s within easy commuting distance of employment centers—the Bank of America call center in Belfast and jobs in Bangor, Brewer, August and Castine. Six universities and four hospitals are within a 20-mile radius of the town.

Real estate trends are positive; in recent months, some 50 homes have been purchased in the greater Bucksport area.

“People are moving in,” Rotella says—an encouraging sign that the town is moving on from the past.

Next Stop: Pinckney, Michigan

Timothy B. Clark is Editor-at-Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: End of Life Takes Effect in California