ELLSWORTH — A group of community organizations is reviving the idea of a riverwalk along the Union River in downtown Ellsworth, with plans to hold a public meeting sometime later this year.
“We’ve reached out to all of the landowners with the idea of proposing a riverwalk,” said Aaron Dority, executive director of Frenchman Bay Conservancy (FBC), one of the groups providing leadership in the project.
“No one has said no,” said Dority. “Some were quite supportive.”
The plan, which has been floated several times over the past few decades, would be to build a path connecting Harbor Park to the Union River bridge on Main Street. Plans are still in the very early stages, said Dority, but could include a 6-to-8-foot-wide path that is “probably not paved but still accessible by bike and wheelchair.”
There is no estimated price tag for the project at this stage.
The group has reached out to a landscape architect, who will eventually be able to provide more concrete plans, said Dority. The area poses a few challenges, including spots where the buildings are very close to the river. To accommodate a path, the shoreline might need to be stabilized or built out.
“I view this as a community-building process to enhance the local asset that we have on the Union River,” Dority said.
The plans would not involve any businesses moving, said Dority, and would require “voluntary land conservation — no eminent domain.”
One possibility could involve FBC holding a trail easement over the properties, he said.
“In the big picture, this is similar to what Bucksport, Bangor and Brewer have done on their waterfronts.”
Permitting could involve the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’ll learn more about this as we engage our landscape architect in the work,” said Dority in an email.
The groups are looking at the project in phases, said Dority, with phase one focusing on the stretch of riverfront between Harbor Park and Maine Shellfish.
Jim Markos, general manager of Maine Shellfish, said he was for the idea but wondered how the group would build a walkway that is “safe and serviceable” in areas where the buildings “almost perch out over the river.”
“Conceptually I think it’s a good idea and I think it would be a nice amenity to the city,” said Markos.
Scott Vicnaire, who owns Full Circle Printing Solutions, said he “wouldn’t be opposed to the plans.”
“I think this strip of Water Street from the corner to Harbor Park is probably the most misused piece of real estate in the city,” said Vicnaire. “It’s Ellsworth’s only good waterfront exposure.”
A riverwalk, said Vicnaire, would increase his property values and “would make the city a little bit more of a destination.”
But, he added, the plans have been floated numerous times over the years, including in 2002, when the city commissioned a waterfront master plan that included a riverwalk.
“Some kind of consortium will have to come together that really wants to have it happen,” Vicnaire said. “It’s tough. You’ve got a bunch of private landowners. Everything has to come together. Then there’s always the cost. Who’s going to pay for it?”
That’s a question that hasn’t entirely been answered, said Dority.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust provided a grant for the community groups to come together and discuss the plans, said Dority. The grant included “a few thousand dollars to help out with the concept design.”
The cost of building an extended riverwalk trail is difficult to estimate, given the number of variables. The city plans to spend $80,000 (the bulk of which is covered by a grant) on extending a 6-foot-wide, wheelchair-accessible trail from the marina to Water Street across from Deane Street. Belfast’s 1.5-mile riverwalk path, which opened to the public in 2013, cost roughly $1.5 million, according to the Island Institute, with funding provided by the city of Belfast. A half-mile trail under development in Bath along the Kennebec River, which includes a parking lot and park with outdoor games, will cost $1.8 million, according to the Portland Press Herald. The bonded debt for that project will be paid for by tax increment financing funds.
“We want to do this in a way that we support the community, improve property values and improve the experience of walking along the river,” said Dority. “There’s a lot of opportunity here for beautifying stretches of the riverfront through Ellsworth,” he said, but the group is being cautious not to “push people beyond their comfort zone.”
Vicnaire said he’s watching with interest as the groups put forward new plans, even if he’s seen it before.
“If you don’t keep stirring that pot every once in a while, it’ll just sit dormant,” he said.