North by East
Tie A Yellow Ribbon
South Portland comes together to remember Iraq casualties.
On a recent gray Tuesday, a middle-aged man and woman stood on either side of Broadway in South Portland. The woman wore a yellow satin ribbon tied around her waist as she and the man worked their way down the street, carefully affixing curls of yellow to each telephone pole on the thoroughfare. At the same time, a few blocks away in Mill Creek Park, a man stood on a ladder, rearranging the letters on the city-owned sign. "LCPL ANGEL ROSA / SGT JASON SWIGER / BLESS YOU AND THANK YOU," it read when he was finished.
By the next day, the yellow ribbons had spread outward, up toward the mall and back to Willard Beach. They were clustered particularly closely around Hobbs Funeral Home, where several days later members of the Patriot Guard Riders stood bearing large American flags as Swiger's friends and family filed in to pay their respects for the twenty-four year old South Portland High School graduate, who was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Baqubah.
Back in 2003, the ribbons had been a flashpoint in the city, which spent hours debating whether they represented a political statement - e.g., support for the war in Iraq - or a less controversial sentiment of support for city residents serving in the military. In a particularly ironic twist of fate, it was Swiger's mother, Valorie, who led the ultimately un-successful fight to hang yellow ribbons on city property.
Four years and seventeen Maine military casualties later, however, the ribbons seem to have been drained of political symbolism. Within a day of Swiger's death, the city council voted unanimously to allow yellow ribbons on city property for a month to honor Swiger and twenty-one year old Angel Rosa, who ten days earlier had been killed in combat in Iraq's Anbar province. Indeed, for a few days, at least, Iraq-related discussion across South Portland centered not on exit strategies or terrorism or democracy, but on young lives cut short. Trips to the grocery store turned into impromptu meditations on love and loss.
For South Portland and, indeed, for all of Maine it was a lesson in community most sorrowfully learned.
Saving The Bridge
The state gives a reprieve to a Harpswell landmark.
Many Harpswell residents feared the worst when they heard that their landmark Cribstone Bridge, the only span of its type in the world, needed major repairs. Old bridges don't often fare well in the relentless calculus of wear and tear and increasing traffic counts, and the Cribstone Bridge is eighty-one years old, one thousand one hundred feet long, and only eighteen feet wide. In recent years the well-known Singing Bridge in Sullivan and the famous Waldo-Hancock Bridge in Prospect had come out on the losing end of similar calculations.
But this time the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) has decided to change the equation. "That bridge has a lot of history behind it," explains Jim Wentworth, the MDOT's project engineer. "It's one of a kind, and we're going to keep it pretty much the way it is."
The bridge, thought to be modeled after a span in Scotland that no longer exists, is supported on granite-filled timber cribs. It was built in 1926 to connect Orr's Island and Bailey Island, and it's an American Society of Civil Engineers landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. "In all the years since, this is the first major reconstruction," Wentworth notes, "so it's held up pretty well, all things considered."
Wentworth says the MDOT will first build a temporary bridge in early 2008 next to the existing span and divert traffic to that for the duration of the $11-million project. Crews will replace and repair the bridge's superstructure and damaged cribwork. The new travel surface will remain eighteen feet wide, but with timber guardrails rather than the metal ones now in place. "We're also keeping the face of the cribworks as near the original as possible," Wentworth adds. The need for authenticity has extended to searching out new sources for granite stones that match the old ones, which came from two long-closed quarries in Yarmouth.
Wentworth anticipates the job will take two years, but when it's done, the Cribstone Bridge should be rock solid for another few decades.
Too Cool At The Nubble
An ice-cream shop still stands in the face of development.
For forty years, no visit to York Beach has been complete without a cone from Brown's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream on Nubble Point. The little shop is as much an institution in the southern Maine summer community as the landmark lighthouse at the end of the point. But Brown's fans, both local and those among the legions of summer folk who descend on the town each year, feared that last year would be the end of the tradition.
Soaring property prices and the taxes that accompanied them were pressuring the property's owner, Byron Brown, who had founded the business, to sell the land for development. While the 1.25-acre plot doesn't have waterfront, it has views of the water that are priceless. Brown had stood by his lease agreement with the shop's operator, Steve Dunne, for many years, but with the contract expiring at the end of last summer, he was talking about putting the land on the market. "He changed his mind at the last minute," Dunne explains, "and extended the lease for another two years."
Dunne's relief is obvious. An engineer by training, he has run Brown's for the past fifteen summers, employing thirty-five to forty teenagers to scoop cones and mix milkshakes. "The kids tell me it's the best job on the beach," Dunne says. The crew is a mix of local and summercator youngsters. "It's a great place to spur young romance," Dunne adds with a chuckle.
Brown has kept his reasons for changing his mind to himself, but Dunne is working to make the shop's future more secure. "My wife and I want to buy the place and keep it as an ice-cream stand," he says. Crowds of beachgoers - and more than a few romance-ready teenagers - will thank him.
Whither Town Meetings?
A New England civic tradition is doomed - or maybe not.
There's a fundamental difference between how citizens speak in front of a city council and how they speak at an annual town meeting. At a council meeting, the speakers face the council, which makes budget and policy decisions. At a town meeting, speakers turn their backs on the elected selectmen sitting on the podium and address the real source of power: their fellow townspeople.
It's a level of direct democracy that is rarely seen anymore. "I prefer the open meetings," muses Lee Smith, the longtime town manager of Waldoboro. "Things are talked out and debated and discussed, and people get the full information they need to make a good decision."
But last year Waldoboro joined the small but growing ranks of Maine towns that are doing away with their annual town meetings in favor of referendums, where citizens go to the polls to vote on the town budget and other issues. "There's probably twenty communities in Maine that have moved to having a town meeting by referendum," remarks Michael Starn, of the Maine Municipal Association. Which raises the question Starn has heard just about every year since he joined the association thirty years ago: Are Maine's traditional town meetings dying?
"There are pressures," Starn acknowledges. "There are demands on people's time these days that they didn't face before. And if you have a choice on a Saturday afternoon between sitting in a town meeting for four to six hours or doing the chores you didn't have the time for during the week, well, what are you going to do?"
Proponents of referendum voting argue that it encourages more participation, and they have a point. Smith notes that last year's Waldoboro town meeting attracted 249 people, which he considers an excellent turnout - in a town with some four thousand registered voters. By contrast, towns that have moved to a referendum often see turnouts of up to 50 percent of eligible voters.
Still, Starn doesn't predict the death of the traditional town meeting. "The problem with moving to referendums is the potential for more elections - if a budget item gets voted down, you have to revise the item and go back to the voters - and the lack of public debate," he explains. "I don't know if referendums are going to spread. A lot of communities like the open-meeting format and the fact that you get a decision immediately."
Maine has 491 municipal governments, ranging from large cities such as Portland to tiny plantations like Matinicus Island. Of them, some fifty have representative councils and another twenty have town meetings by referendum. In the rest, the chance to stand and address the voters at town meeting still exists.
So the town meeting isn't disappearing anytime soon. It might even be regaining strength. In April, town residents presented a petition to the Waldoboro board of selectmen requesting a new referendum - to do away with the referendum and bring back the traditional town meeting.
Using ingenuity - and lobster traps - to solve a problem at Bowdoin.
Bowdoin College archivists were stumped recently in their search for a new storage system for their collection of large, rolled-up, architectural drawings and maps, so they asked campus carpenter Mark Donovan if he had any ideas. "Basically they needed a bank of shelves about seven feet tall with forty-two cubbies, each a foot square," Donovan explains. "It wasn't a problem, until they said it couldn't be made of wood."
Even when treated, wood could trap moisture that over time would stain the documents and attract mold. Donovan realized he needed a material that was light and allowed plenty of air circulation, while being made of an inert material that would not damage the valuable documents. So he fell back on his previous career as a commercial lobsterman and dropped by a local trap company for a few panels of the wire mesh used to make lobster traps. "It was perfect," he says.
The plastic-coated lobster trap mesh is made to withstand years of rough treatment on the bottom of the ocean, so turning it into a unique set of shelves was a snap. "It was cheap and easy, and the chemistry department here ran tests and discovered that the polyvinylchloride coating is chemically inert," Donovan explains.
Donovan's ingenuity came to the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which featured his solution in a recent newsletter. Meanwhile, other campus departments want their own trap wire shelves, and Donovan has begun a small sideline creating outdoor furniture from the sturdy material. "I was just doing my job," he says with a shrug. Donovan still fishes recreationally, but these days it looks like his traps are getting more attention ashore than they are in the water.
A Portland foundation takes a chance on young entrepreneurs.
Keeping young entrepreneurs in Maine after they graduate from college or technical schools has always been a challenge, not least because entrepreneurs usually need start-up capital from investors willing to take a chance. Erik Hayward and the Portland-based Libra Foundation believe in taking chances.
Hayward is president of the Libra Future Fund, a small grant-making arm of the foundation that specializes in offering support to young people with great ideas. Since it started in 2005, the fund has made thirteen awards to individuals to promote economic development or create job opportunities in Maine, from financing a heating system for a Freeport recording studio to underwriting a machine shop.
"The idea started with a coworker and myself," Hayward explains. "I went to Yale, and I was the only person in my graduating class that took a job in Maine. My coworker was a Bowdoin College graduate who was in a similar situation. Both of us wanted to counter the perception that you had to go outside the state to find economic opportunity."
Hayward, who is also the accounting manager for the Libra Foundation, persuaded the foundation to fund a program to encourage entrepreneurs in Maine. In 2005 the first group of applicants was recruited through contacts with colleges, technical schools, and economic development programs. "We're not talking huge amounts of money," Hayward cautions. "Generally the grants run around three thousand dollars to five thousand dollars. But when you're talking about a young individual right out of college, this can be huge in getting a business started."
"The grant was incredibly valuable to me and important in getting my business started," says Rebecca Stockbridge, who received $4,200 from the fund last year to help get her Web site development business, MediCreative, up and running. The company specializes in developing Web sites for physicians, dentists, and veterinary practices. "The money from the future fund helped me develop top-notch marketing materials and gave me a real jump start." Stockbridge now has almost thirty clients and has already hired a part-time employee to help with the business.
In the first two years the fund has awarded thirteen grants, and Hayward says he's surprised at the success rate. Business start-ups, especially among young people, have a high failure rate, but he says only two projects have failed so far. "That's doing pretty well considering it's a high-risk endeavor," he notes. For the Libra Future Fund, it appears that taking chances can pay off.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Portlanders look to the seventies for the next big food trend.
Remember food co-ops - those quaint little storefronts where you could buy all the mung beans and miso paste your heart desired, all of it rung up, in somewhat haphazard fashion, by your hippie neighbor and piled on the end of the counter for you to bag as you wished. But when you can find echinacea at CVS and edamame in the freezer aisle at Hannaford, isn't the demand for a community-owned natural food store gone?
Not if you ask an optimistic group of folks in Portland. At least twice a month, they meet just blocks away from the packed parking lot at the new Whole Foods (the still-bustling Wild Oats is a bit farther away) to discuss their plans for the Portland Food Co-op. Envisioned as a younger, citified sibling of Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta, the Blue Hill Co-op and Café, and the Belfast Co-op - all products of the late seventies - the new millennium Portland co-op would emphasize local goods. "The issue isn't access to natural or organic foods," says Michelle Boisvert, who moved to Maine from Baltimore last year and has become a key member of the group after just a few months of involvement. "It's taking it a step further and wanting a central location where we can purchase products that are produced sustainably here in Maine."
While even the major grocery chains are emphasizing their local roots and Maine-based suppliers these days, Boisvert and her compatriots feel the corporations' efforts pay little more than lip service to the "buy local" mantra. And so they're talking about consensus-building, taking field trips to co-ops up the coast, researching grants and business plans, and dreaming of the day when they can announce an address and an opening date for a member-owned market. "With it being a cooperative process, it just takes that much longer," says Boisvert of the effort, which she guesses could take as long as two years to come to fruition.
Assuming it does, Portlanders will get reacquainted with their hippie neighbors - perhaps this time without the mung beans.