BUCKSPORT — Bucksport became one of 19 communities across the country — and the only one in Maine — to receive a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Brownfields Area-Wide Planning (AWP) program on Thursday afternoon.
The purpose of the $200,000 grant is to analyze the local and regional market for companies that are interested in buying land on the site of the former Verso paper mill.
“This will allow us to build on what we’ve been doing,” said Bucksport’s Economic Development Director Rich Rotella. The town of Bucksport has partnered with the Hancock County Planning Commission, Bucksport NEXT, Bucksport Heart and Soul and the Eastern Maine Development Corp. (EMDC), which will take the lead on the market assessment efforts.
“We’ll all be working together to do this analysis and find an equitable way to reuse the mill site,” said Vicki Rusbult, the director of Re-Engineering the Region & Planning at EMDC.
When the mill shut down in 2014, its 500 employees lost their jobs and the town lost 40 percent of its tax base. New restaurants and businesses on Main Street and a steady stream of new residents in Bucksport indicate that the town is recovering smoothly. But the question of what will be done with the 400-acre mill site lingers.
The Maine Maritime Academy has expressed interest in using 5 to 10 acres of the site for a training facility, and Rotella has fielded inquiries from a wide range of other potential buyers. However, many of those buyers are waiting for the mill demolition process to be completed.
Rotella said that should be accomplished this May, though the site’s owners, AIM Development, plan on keeping the site’s smokestacks, conveyor belt and power plant.
“There’s lots of room for multiple projects, which is great because you don’t want to put your eggs all in one basket,” Rotella said. “The future is with multiple industries in a space like that.”
Rotella said those industries could be aquaculture or lumber or something else. The new grant should help the Town Council plan that out.
“The market analysis is going to look at what are the industries and businesses in the region,” Rusbult said. “We’re trying to determine what would be the most suitable and profitable tenants that fit the picture. It may not make sense to bring in a business that relies on supply chains that don’t exist here.”
The site is still a brownfield, meaning that, as a former industrial site, its future use could be affected by environmental contamination.
To address that concern, Rusbult said that some of the money will be spent hiring an environmental consultant to help guide the redevelopment process and whatever cleanup of chemicals is left to do.
She also said EMDC plans to keep an eye out for spots that could be used as potential parks.
“The mill is close to downtown and the waterfront,” she said. “So can we use some green space to enhance the downtown area?”
Initiated by the Obama administration, the grant is meant to empower economically and environmentally distressed areas, such as those affected by manufacturing plant closures. Rotella hopes that EMDC and Bucksport’s other partners will help make that a reality.
“No one man or woman can do this,” he said. “It takes support for a community to become what it is.”