BUCKSPORT — A yearlong planning process for redevelopment of the former Verso paper mill site began last week.
Representatives of Elan Planning, Design & Landscape Architecture PLLC, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based consulting firm, met with Bucksport community leaders to introduce themselves and their process, and to take a look at the town of Bucksport.
“We’re on a fact-finding mission right now,” said Lisa Nagle, a founding principal of Elan. “We’re like sponges at this point.”
Earlier this year, The Eastern Maine Development Corp. (EMDC) received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Program.
The purpose of the grant was for EMDC to partner with Bucksport to analyze local and regional markets for ways to make the site, which is currently owned by AIM Development, economically productive again.
With help from Bucksport town staff and AIM Development, EMDC retained Elan to conduct the analysis. In a meeting with The Ellsworth American last week, Nagle explained that Elan’s process involves multiple stages.
The process started last week, when representatives met with community leaders. Next, on some day in October, there will be a public open house from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., where anyone in Bucksport can come to ask questions or share ideas for redeveloping the site.
“One of the main questions will be ‘What is your vision for the site?’” said Dan Stevens, a project manager for Elan. “There are no bad ideas. We just like to get everyone’s ideas on the table.”
Not all of the public’s ideas will make it into the final plan. Stevens said the ideas will be run through a “feasibility filter,” based on factors including real estate market conditions.
The public’s feedback will guide the Elan team as it works over the winter to identify potential future uses of the 274-acre site, which includes the former paper mill, a landfill and other nearby properties.
“The site has so many great assets,” Nagle said. “It’s got a deepwater port, it’s got rail, it’s got three-phase power. There’s tremendous opportunity.”
The port may be one of the most important parts of the redevelopment plan. Elan brought along Roberta Weisbrod, a principal with the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based consulting firm The Partnership for Sustainable Ports, for last week’s visit.
Weisbrod’s job is to look at different dock configurations that might help boost Bucksport’s capabilities as a shipping center. Weisbrod seemed excited by the possibilities at the port.
“It’s a wonderful place,” she said.
The infrastructure wasn’t the only thing that stood out to last week’s visitors. Nagle said the people and institutions of Bucksport were equally as important for attracting businesses.
“Just the community itself in terms of the volunteerism here is unprecedented,” said the principal, who pointed to Bucksport Heart and Soul, the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lighthouse Arts Center as examples of Bucksport’s active volunteer presence.
“We work all over the place and we really haven’t seen a community like that,” she said.
Nagle also mentioned Bucksport High School’s welding program and robotics team as great examples of Regional School Unit 25’s ability to train workers for future businesses on the site.
“When companies look for a place to locate, certainly they need power or rail or basic infrastructure,” Nagle said. “But they also look to the community to say ‘What kind of place is it? Where am I going to live?’ Being in a nice community is part of the site selection process for people.”
In April 2018, Elan Planning will return to Bucksport for a second public open house. Feedback gathered there will help the consultants further refine a master plan, which will be finalized and presented to the town in the fall of 2018.
Both Nagle and Rich Rotella, Bucksport’s economic development director, said they envision the site becoming a multi-use space fit for both commercial and small-scale industrial users.
Multiple users mean that the town will be less reliant on a single industry, as it was in 2014 when the paper mill shut down.
“It’s more sustainable,” Rotella said. “There’s no more knight in shining armor.”
Nagle said the site’s biggest challenge is the mercury contamination in the Penobscot River. The mercury came from a former chemical plant in Orrington, and federal authorities still have to figure out how to clean it up.
“We can still operate a port, but if we want to dredge or something, we’re doing to disturb that mercury,” Nagle said.
Elan has encountered similar obstacles while working on past Brownfield redevelopment projects in New York, Kansas, Iowa and other states across the country.
A Brownfield is a term often used to describe former industrial sites that could be contaminated. The Verso paper mill site is a Brownfield, but Nagle said that papermaking is relatively clean when compared to other industries.
“That’s why papermaking sites are eyed by people,” she said. “Because they know that that’s the case.”
While Elan is a newcomer to Maine, it has a reputation for doing good work across the country.
Jay Byers, the assistant city manager of Pittsburg, Kan., spoke highly of Elan. Byers worked with the firm to create a plan for redeveloping a 386-acre site where the city’s clay pipe manufacturing facility used to operate.
“Your town will be in good hands with Elan,” he said.
As in Bucksport, the process in Pittsburg started with open houses and meetings with community leaders.
“We really got some very positive feedback,” Byers said, about the open houses. “Public sessions can be chaotic and not particularly effective, but Elan was quite good at that engagement piece.”
Byers said Elan also was skilled at analyzing the market for redevelopment options. Once the plan is complete, Byers said Pittsburg hopes to attract small businesses and light industrial users to the site.
“That’s a huge step once we have a plan,” Byers said. “There are some big national conferences coming up and I’ll take my plan with me to talk to re-developers there.”
Don Gross, the former director of community development for the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, also had good things to say about Elan.
Gross worked with the firm to create a redevelopment plan for a mid-city site bisected by several railroads.
“Oftentimes it’s good to have someone with a fresh face,” Gross said. “I think you have a better product with that.”
Gross hopes that part of the site will be developed into green spaces for recreation, while other parts will be used for small scale commercial or industrial facilities.
Gross said the work with Elan marks only the start of a redevelopment process that could take decades. Still, Gross said that a good plan is a vital first step.
“If you don’t establish that vision, how do you know what’s part of your strategy?” he said.