BUCKSPORT — When the Verso paper mill closed here in 2014, 500 people lost their jobs and the town of Bucksport lost 40 percent of its tax base.
Since then, a number of citizen-led groups have emerged whose goal it is to make Bucksport more economically prosperous and socially vibrant. These groups include Bucksport Heart & Soul and Main Street Bucksport, along with older groups such as the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bucksport Economic Development Director’s Office.
But over two years after the mill closed, those groups, and what they do, may seem hard to tell apart.
“We have to answer this question: How are these groups working together?” Town Councilor Peter Stewart asked at an Economic Development Committee meeting on Jan. 5.
At that meeting, Brook Minner, president of the board of Main Street Bucksport, had asked the Economic Development Committee for $10,000 in tax-increment financing (TIF) funds until June and $20,000 in the next budget cycle. The funding would help the group plan events and promote businesses in downtown Bucksport.
The Town Council already gave $20,000 to Bucksport Heart & Soul last November, so Stewart felt it was necessary for taxpayers to know how their money was being used before any decisions were made.
“People don’t hear people talking,” said Stewart of the discussion he and his fellow committee members had at the meeting about what each group does in Bucksport. “They just hear about economic development money going out.”
Below is a primer on the different groups: their history, what their objectives are and how they use Town Council funding.
Main Street Bucksport
“Economic development isn’t just about the downtown,” Minner said after the meeting. “But I am yet to go to a vibrant community that didn’t have a strong downtown.”
That’s the motivation behind Main Street Bucksport, a nonprofit that formed after the mill closure. The organization is part of the National Main Street Center Inc., a network of 2,200 grassroots Main Street groups that aim to develop downtown areas in cities and towns across the country.
One of the network’s four steps toward economic development is to promote downtown through cultural arts events. Those events help boost local businesses with more revenue and promote the image of a bustling town to newcomers.
So far, Main Street Bucksport has devoted much of its time to helping plan events such as the Bucksport Arts Festival and the International Maritime Film Festival. This year, the group will also start help planning the Bridge the Gap footrace, which will finish in downtown Bucksport.
“When you come to town during the arts festival and there are thousands of people there and the artists are selling, then that says something about a town,” Minner said. “It puts the message out there that we’re reinventing ourselves.”
The events have a large economic impact. The International Maritime Film Festival alone raised over $11,000. Many visitors arrived by boat at the Bucksport’s marina and walked across the street into the Alamo Theatre. Last year, about 500 people came downtown for the Bridge the Gap race, and most of them had at least one family member there to cheer them on.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to plan those events, especially for an all-volunteer staff.
“These sorts of events don’t just happen out of nowhere, they take a lot of effort, energy and money,” Minner said.
For the Bridge the Gap race, organizers have to design T-shirts, arrange for snacks at the race, and hire porta-potty services and a race timing company. Minner and her 11 co-members provide much of the labor, while an array of grants and donations accounted for most of the money.
Minner said Main Street Bucksport received a $4,500 grant from the Hancock County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation last year, and by the end of the year the organization had more than doubled that investment.
“We used that money to obtain our 501(c)3 [nonprofit organization tax status], launch a website and hold two fundraisers,” she said. “We ended last year just shy of $10,000, so we’ve more than doubled our money.”
Though Main Street Bucksport has proven itself financially, Minner said that support from the town would allow the group to do more than plan events. She requested $10,000 from the town’s Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) fund to cover the group’s expenses from now until the end of June, and $20,000 every year for the next three years to pay for a part-time executive director.
Minner said the long-term commitment from the town would show grant-giving organizations that Main Street Bucksport is “here to stay.”
“We’ve had some great success, but I think it’s time we had somebody whose job it is to do this work,” she said. “We’re planning some big things.”
A part-time employee could help the group focus on large projects, such as renovating the facades of downtown buildings. A simple touch like that could help attract business.
“There’s grant money for that,” Minner said.
She mentioned projects other main street organizations have undertaken, such as when Biddeford put out advertisements for an Indian restaurant when its main street group discovered that town residents craved an Indian food establishment nearby.
“You write the grant and you get the money, but everybody benefits because it helps your downtown,” Minner said.
Determining what the town’s interests are is a crucial step in that process, and it’s what Bucksport Heart & Soul is all about.
Bucksport Heart & Soul
Formed in January 2016, Heart & Soul works to “hear the voices of as many people in Bucksport as possible,” said the group’s coordinator, Nancy Minott.
“In a lot of communities you have a dozen or so people who show up to Town Council meetings and make the decisions for a town,” she said. “Here there are so many people living outside of the downtown. When you find out what matters to them — why do they live there, if they have ideas for ways to move into the future — it empowers people to have a voice.”
After several months of planning and organizing, Heart & Soul volunteers began interviewing as many Bucksport residents as they could. They held five block parties at five different areas in town where residents could swap stories over meals home-cooked by several of the participants. So far, the volunteers have collected and transcribed over 200 interviews, with many more on the way.
Storytelling may not seem like a method of economic development, but Minott has a plan for using those stories to help shape her town’s growth.
How will she do that? With spreadsheets. Once the interviews are transcribed, Minott and the volunteers mine the transcripts for statements of value, such as “land for agriculture is important,” or “we should have a kayak rental place on Silver Lake.” Those statements are entered into a spreadsheet. If a similar values pop up across the statements, such as “land for agriculture is important,” then those values are given to the Town Council.
“Then they have a blueprint for making decisions in the future,” Minott said.
If Walmart wanted to build a supercenter on Town Farm Road, for example, town councilors might consult that blueprint and feel opposed to developing the land there. By compiling town residents’ value statements, Minott said that “you’ve empowered all those people who told the stories to become more involved in the decision making. They have a voice.”
Storytelling aside, Heart & Soul also has led directly to a new business opening on Main Street. Colleen Gross said that she and her husband, Mike, opened their tapas restaurant Verona Wine & Design last summer because they were so energized by the group.
“Heart & Soul really was a big part of our decision to open the restaurant, because of the community spirit at the meetings,” Gross said. “We got to meet even more people in the community and feel the enthusiasm and get a sense of where people want to be headed.”
So far, Minott gets the sense that people in Bucksport want to head toward more town parks, better transportation for older residents and more community events such as the Heart & Soul block parties.
Thing is, the Heart & Soul program is scheduled to end this December. From its inception, the program was supposed to be a short-term effort. When the group received $20,000 from the Town Council last November, the funding went toward paying Minott, who took over the group’s helm from the town’s economic development director, Rich Rotella, who, already multi-tasking, felt stretched at the time. Minott said she has a lot left to do before the program ends.
“Most of the work right now I believe will be going to the groups,” she said. “Going to the snowmobile club or the Bucksport animal shelter. We have a whole wall of formal and informal groups. The main focus is to get as many stories as possible.”
Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce
Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Leslie Wombacher and her administrative assistant Alecia Smith try to encourage economic development in surrounding towns as well as in Bucksport. They try to connect businesses and draw in new ones throughout the region, in towns such as Orland, Winterport, Castine, Prospect, Verona Island, East Belfast, Stockton Springs and Searsport.
“We currently have 200 members that are within a 25-mile radius of our office,” said Wombacher, whose office is in Bucksport. “So we think a little broader than just the Main Street.”
Wombacher has been the chamber’s executive director since 2013. When she first got there, Wombacher described it as a traditional chamber that held after-hour get-togethers and business breakfasts for members.
But Wombacher thought there was more to be done, so she started planning events: lots of them.
Among the events are a River Duck Dash in Orland, a Frost Fest, a Ghostport, a Bay Festival, a Golftober Fest and a Pixie Harbor Hoopla in Bucksport.
While Main Street Bucksport also plans events, Wombacher thinks the chamber’s are “broader in scope.” The Bucksport Bay Festival, for example, attracts between 2,000 and 5,000 people every year, while Main Street Bucksport events such as the International Maritime Film Festival are limited by the number of seats in the Alamo Theatre.
Planning for those events and acquiring sponsors takes all year, but that’s not all Smith and Wombacher do at the chamber.
Since she started there, Wombacher has used the chamber’s Facebook page to great effect, posting news of events and sales at local businesses and promoting a chosen business every month to drive shoppers there.
“We utilized social media and the email newsletter before it was cool,” she said.
The chamber provides a suite of benefits for member businesses. It refers newcomers to member businesses, provides discounts to encourage business owners to buy from fellow members and offers a “Business Buzz,” where a member store is chosen at random to be showcased on chamber’s website and social media.
Business owners also can have the chamber host an event of their choosing, such as a cash mob, at their store.
“To me the object of this game is to promote each other and our area,” Wombacher said.
Apart from planning events, Smith and Wombacher spend much of their time gleaning information from their members’ Facebook pages to put in the chamber’s newsletter. They also provide social media and web design help for their less technologically skilled members.
In the past, Wombacher and Smith have designed fliers and rack cards, all using relatively simple computer programs.
“It’s amazing what you can do in Microsoft Word,” said Wombacher, who owns her own business, Sun Dial Photography, LLC, and splits a part-time salary with Smith for her chamber work.
“There’s not enough hours in every given day,” Wombacher said. “It would be so much easier if we could afford one full-time salary, but we would have to double our membership. My budget’s my budget.”
Wombacher occasionally gets requests for help from members on the more technical aspects of business, such as bumping one’s sales output. But she has had fewer requests like these over the years, especially since Rich Rotella became Bucksport’s economic development director in 2015.
Bucksport Economic Development Director’s Office
Are all these volunteer or semi-volunteer groups necessary? Would it be simpler and more efficient to have it all run by the town government, through the office of the economic development director, Rich Rotella? Perhaps, but Rotella doesn’t feel that way.
“I can’t be in charge of all those things; they require so much time,” said Rotella, who serves in an advisory role on the groups’ boards. “In order for them to be successful they should be separate from my office, but they impact my office, so I’m a member of them.”
As economic development director, Rotella is in charge of encouraging new businesses and advising older ones throughout the town, not just on Main Street.
In a typical day last week, Rotella said he met with the town’s code enforcement officer and an architect who might open a firm in Bucksport.
Rotella then met with a business owner on River Road to talk about different ways of attracting business. He met with Realtors to find out which properties were being sold in town, and he met with representatives of The Ellsworth American and the Bangor Daily News to discuss running ads for the Bucksport Bay Festival this summer. And he still had three meetings with town elected officials that evening.
“Economic development is just so busy,” said Rotella, who ceded his leadership of Heart & Soul to Nancy Minott last November because he felt the group “needed someone who could provide more time than I was able to give.”
Each group has a different objective. Main Street Bucksport organizes activity for the town’s Main Street, Heart & Soul seeks out the voices of Bucksport, the chamber coordinates business throughout the area and Rotella provides town government support to those who need it.
The groups complement each other, and they avoid miscommunication because many of the group members serve on the boards of other groups.
“The federal people see the coalitions working together,” said Town Councilor Paul Rabs, about a federal Economic Development and Administration Team that visited the town last August. “They want to give money to the town because of it.”
Perhaps Wombacher put it best.
“To me, they’re all cogs in the same gear system,” she said. “You get more torque and power with more gears.”