BUCKSPORT — When the Verso paper mill announced its closure in 2014, many thought Bucksport would be “one more in a line of dying mill towns,” said Town Manager Susan Lessard.
Lessard gave a talk titled “The Town That Wouldn’t Die” on Monday via the online meeting platform Zoom. The talk was sponsored by the University of Maine’s Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.
The mill’s closure cost nearly 500 jobs, 279 held by Bucksport residents. The town lost 40 percent of its property value.
“Eighty years as a mill town ended virtually overnight,” Lessard said. “But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.”
“There was mourning,” she continued. “But the community did not sit back.”
Bucksport residents stepped up, started businesses, got more involved in the town, “dug in their heels and started over.”
“For Bucksport, it was a new beginning,” said Lessard, who has now managed five towns while at various times also holding the titles of lighthouse keeper and “trash queen of central Maine” while dealing with landfill issues as town manager in Hampden.
Many have questions about the success of this small-town USA community nestled on the banks of the Penobscot River.
Since the mill closed seven years ago, the town attracted a company called Whole Oceans, which is developing a land-based aquaculture operation on a portion of the former mill site. Meanwhile, Maine Maritime Academy just finished its first year of operating a mariner training center on another portion of the site. In November, Bucksport’s school system, Regional School Unit 25 (RSU 25), announced it had received a grant “just shy of a million dollars,” aimed at inspiring pre-K-to-12 students to plan for careers and postsecondary education, according to Superintendent Jim Boothby.
Lessard said people question why Bucksport didn’t fold when the mill closed. Why is Bucksport attracting so much business and residential development? Why is Bucksport so successful in obtaining grants?
“In Bucksport, we’ve worked to stay on the front page in a good way,” Lessard said.
A sign on the town’s riverfront walkway announces that the reader is at “the center of the known universe,” a saying the town’s former economic development director, Dave Milan, liked to espouse.
“We prefer to think of it as location, location, location,” Lessard said. Bucksport is approximately 18 miles from everything: major institutions, shopping, entertainment and the transportation hub of I-95.
“The first and most important component of its rebirth lies with its people,” Lessard said. “The real testament is not what happens when things are going well but what happens when things are not.”
“Bucksport did not suffer the death of a thousand cuts as many others have, ‘the open/close/sell’; in Bucksport, it was final,” she said of the mill closure.
“The loss of the mill increased the sense of the community but in truth the foundation was already there,” said Lessard. “In Bucksport, community is more than a word, it is our culture.”
Planning is also key.
“We are in a constant state of evaluating how we do business,” the town manager said.
Planning that was done by elected and appointed officials in the years leading up to the mill’s closure was also crucial. That planning led to an $8 million “rainy day fund.”
“Of that, $2 million was used as a buffer that next year to maintain services,” said Lessard.
In addition, “the community invested heavily during the mill years,” the manager said. A mile-long walkway along the waterfront was constructed along with miles of hiking trails and “exceptional sports facilities,” all of which help attract people to Bucksport.
Lessard credited partnerships and persistence to Bucksport’s success.
“I think you probably understand what would have happened if Bucksport residents stood around and wrung their hands, waiting for the cavalry,” she said. “They were the cavalry.”