The Penobscot River gateway has quietly reinvented itself. Now if only people would notice.
Route 1 has never treated Bucksport well. Maine’s landmark highway enters the Penobscot River town on a bridge from Verona Island — and promptly takes a sharp right turn at a traffic light and leaves again. Travelers on their way to Acadia National Park see a supermarket and a couple of fast-food joints and think that’s Bucksport.
If there’s a mantra in Bucksport these days, it’s “left at the lights.” The town still hosts an active paper mill (one of the last in the state), but it also has a mile-long landscaped walkway on a riverfront that was once a dump. The Bucksport that is one of Maine’s major oil import terminals is the same one that rivals Bangor as the third-largest cruise ship port in the state. Businesses are already seeing increased traffic from the state’s newest tourist attraction, the immensely popular observation tower at the western end of the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge, which dominates the town’s view across the river. Retirees and vacationers are discovering a town with reasonable prices, low taxes, and water frontage less than an hour from both Bar Harbor and Camden, two communities Bucksport folks insist they do not want to emulate even as a certain gentrification creeps into their neighborhoods.
Bucksport may not be a resort destination — Rosen’s of Maine doesn’t stock Armani ties and MacLeod’s Restaurant isn’t serving pan-roasted soy-lacquered salmon — but it’s becoming a place that makes a good first impression. Besides, how many other communities in Maine can claim to have their own comic strip, as well as a pedicab taxi service?
First impressions haven’t always been Bucksport’s strong suit. Northeast Historic Film founder David Weiss recalls that two-thirds of Main Street’s storefronts were vacant in 1992, when he bought the defunct Alamo Theater for $37,000 at a foreclosure auction. Bookstore owner Andy Lacher remembers standing on a downtown sidewalk on a frigid, windy Sunday in January 1997 and thinking there should be tumbleweeds blowing through town. Don Houghton’s brother tried to talk him out of buying the local weekly newspaper after a visit in 2001.
These days Andy Lacher owns BookStacks, the bookstore he began planning while working in Bangor for the Mr. Paperback chain. “I saw the writing on the wall when Borders opened in Bangor in the mid-1990s,” he explains. “Our store there went from sixty [sales] an hour to three overnight.”
If Bucksport seemed a strange place to open an independent bookshop at the time, Lacher insists it was perfect. “I did the homework,” he says. “Bucksport may be small, but it sits in the middle of this entire region between Belfast and Ellsworth. It was obvious this would work.” His first sight of that cold, empty street in 1997, he says, was offset a few minutes later when he stepped inside a small café and found it buzzing with activity. “I said, ‘Here we are. If you unlock the door and turn on the lights, they’ll come.’ ”
Eleven years later, Lacher’s shop anchors Bucksport’s single-street downtown. Even on a quiet Thursday morning a steady stream of people come in for newspapers, books, fresh coffee, and company. An older man and a teenager study their laptops in the WiFi-equipped sitting area in the front window. Lacher whips out a water bowl for a customer’s thirsty dog. “I’m never alone in here,” he says.
The people keeping him company have changed, though. Although the town’s population has remained stable at about five thousand, it’s not the same five thousand it was ten or fifteen years ago.
“It used to be that the mill employed two thousand people and half of them lived here in town,” offers Dave Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director. (The paper mill at the north end of Main Street first opened in 1930 and is currently owned by Tennessee-based Verso.) “This was a real mill town,” he adds, recalling how many of the boys who graduated from Bucksport High School with him in 1977 walked straight into jobs at the mill and never aspired to more. “Now it employs about eight hundred and less than a quarter of them live in town.”
These days the mill’s impact is more visual than anything else — from the bridge its buildings dominate the northern end of town, although they’re barely visible from Main Street. The lightweight magazine paper it produces — Time magazine, Victoria’s Secret catalogs, etc. — doesn’t create the rotten-egg stink that plagues some other mill communities.
“There’s this perception that we’re still a mill town,” Lacher adds. “That’s wrong. These days, we’re a town that happens to have a mill in it — and a lot more.”
In recent years Bucksport has become a bedroom community for surrounding cities. “We’re eighteen miles from Bangor, Belfast, and Ellsworth,” Milan points out. Retirees have converted summer cottages on the town’s lakes into year-round homes, and vacationers who stumble upon the town have bought seasonal properties. Residential development has spread up the river and inland as newcomers are drawn by the town’s services and low mil rate.
“We’ve had a lot of new people move in,” says Town Manager Roger Raymond. “I would say 60 to 70 percent of the households have changed since I came here in 1985. In my neighborhood alone there are only two that haven’t changed out of at least ten.”
The newcomers have embraced Bucksport as strongly as the natives. Weiss says he was initially drawn to the town because he felt the 1916 Alamo, the second-oldest purpose-built movie theater in Maine, would be the perfect home for Northeast Historic Film, with its mission of preserving the film and video heritage of northern New England. Now he’s an unabashed Bucksport booster.
“To be perfectly frank, we had to move into town before we realized that it was the people who made this place perfect for us, not the building,” he explains. “When we were in Blue Hill, we hadn’t been part of the community as such. That was transformational for us. We got a $64,000 grant from [Bucksport] to help restore the theater. The people here totally supported us, and that local support was the keystone for helping us land funding from farther afield, foundations and grant programs and such.”
“I could take a can and start walking down Main Street and tell people, ‘The money is for the kids,’ and I wouldn’t be halfway down the street before I had to come back for another can,” says Don Houghton, owner, editor, publisher, and janitor for the weekly Enterprise. A local paramedic who was severely injured in an accident received such an outpouring of help that for a time Houghton was running a column detailing each week’s aid efforts.
Roger Raymond gets the lion’s share of the credit for the new Bucksport. He took the job in 1985 after ten years in Eagle Lake in far northern Maine. “The waterfront here was pretty disgusting,” he recalls. “Deteriorating wharves, forty or fifty sewer outfalls that were exposed at low tide. The downtown hadn’t seen any improvements in fifty or sixty years. The streets were pitiful — there wasn’t a street in this town that didn’t need repairs. The town office hadn’t been improved since 1938, and it was in a building so small that on busy days people had to wait outside. The schools were deteriorating. It was tough.”
Development director Milan, who was a Bucksport police officer in those days, still tells the story of the bad guy he chased down onto the riverfront one dark night. “The grass was shoulder high, and I was running flat out — right smack dab into an old rusty car hidden in the grass,” he says. “An entire car, mind you. Back then, the riverfront was where you dumped anything you didn’t want — old cars, water heaters, oil drums, you name it.” Today his office overlooks the red brick riverwalk. “We used to have wharf rats the size of cats down here,” he says, shaking his head.
The key was a town council and a community that wanted change and continued to support it for more than two decades. “That was the biggest thing — having a vision and being consistent about it,” Raymond explains. “The majority of the folks here wanted change. Seldom has anyone not wanted to continue the improvements. We haven’t gotten to the point yet where someone says we’ve done enough, no more change.”
It was Raymond who landed the grants that underwrote construction of a new sewer system and treatment plant. At the same time, upriver communities and industries, including Bucksport’s own paper mill, were also cleaning up their discharges, resulting in a Penobscot River far cleaner today than the 1985 version. “Raymond told me once, first you save the river, then you save the waterfront, and that saves Main Street,” Milan says.
When Raymond decided it was time Bucksport noticed its waterfront, he did it himself. In 1988 he built the first section of the riverwalk on Saturdays with help from a town employee. “Then I got a grant and extended it, and it grew from there,” Raymond explains. Today it starts at the Verso mill and stretches a mile to the Route 1 bridge. And it’s still growing. Raymond expects to see the path extended all the way to the Buck Memorial, with its ghostly outline of a boot, before he leaves his job next year.
Bucksport still has a ways to go before it reaches its potential — or even fully embraces its present. The riverwalk is attractive, for example, but strollers can’t help but notice that most of the Main Street buildings that back onto it don’t open onto the river, a legacy of the decades when the water was so polluted no one wanted to look at it. There isn’t a single restaurant balcony or art gallery patio overlooking the water. Indeed, there are only a handful of doors.
“Cruise ship passengers love to ride along here,” says pedicab operator Andy Tyne, who trades Bucksport tidbits and advice for tips. “It would be great to have more down here for them.”
Main Street itself still retains some of the nondescript character of old Bucksport, where used-car lots and hair salons occupy prime downtown locations. Many of the buildings are a century old or more and lack either the size or the charm to be renovated into new uses. “Some owners downtown have seen their properties simply as investments they can sell later for a higher price,” Raymond laments. “Not many wanted to improve their buildings. We’re seeing less of that now . . . but you still need the private sector to get involved in developing those properties, and that has been difficult.”
“The thing about Bucksport is that we’re trying to put together the critical mass we need to make it a destination,” offers George MacLeod, owner of MacLeod’s Restaurant. “We’re close, but we haven’t been able to put together that cluster of businesses that reinforce each other and bring people in. We need that keystone development.”
MacLeod, who opened his well-respected eatery almost thirty years ago, says the town faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma of how to attract traffic that will attract new businesses that will attract traffic. “I’m convinced people will come here,” he insists. “I’m the model. We started in a building the town wanted to tear down. My insurance agent wouldn’t sell me insurance for it. Now we draw customers from an eighty-mile radius.”
“I was at a pancake breakfast Saturday down on the river, and two other people at the table told me they had discovered Bucksport a few years ago while sailing in Penobscot Bay,” Houghton says. “They never knew it existed. Now they base their boat here. They love this place.”
“Bucksport is such a perfect little town, I’m surprised more people don’t find it,” says Ted Bastien, a Toronto-based cartoonist who draws Bugsport, his offbeat homage to the town he and his family discovered several years ago on vacation. The Web-based strip about a Maine town that shelters alien refugees from the Roswell crash is filled with thinly veiled references to Bucksport’s places and people.
A lot of hope is riding on the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge over the Penobscot River between Prospect and Verona Island. The astonishing cable-stay bridge itself is a modern marvel [Down East, April 2008], but even more impressive is the observation deck in its western tower, which stands 420 feet above the shore in Fort Knox State Park. The far-ranging view includes Mount Desert Island, Penobscot Bay, Mount Katahdin, Matinicus Rock — and Bucksport. “People go up to the observatory, and they see this cool-looking little town on the river practically at their feet,” Lacher explains. “All they have to do is turn left.”
- By: Jeff Clark