Going, Going, Gone: The Colorful Vestiges of MBNA’s Lavish Midcoast Legacy
Last month's auction of a former retreat center felt like an epilogue to an era of corporate largesse.
An armada of colorful bowling balls, among the items to be auctioned at Point Lookout, a former MBNA corporate conference center.
By Jesse Ellison Photographed by Tristan Spinski
The recent liquidation sale at Point Lookout, in Northport, would not have been to Charles Cawley’s liking. Cawley was the hard-charging head of credit-card behemoth MBNA, and Point Lookout was the crown jewel of MBNA’s Maine kingdom. A corporate retreat on almost 400 wooded acres of Ducktrap Mountain, the property had a ropes course and climbing wall, good for team-building exercises. Its conference center’s kitchen was equipped to serve more than 500 meals at a time. Visiting employees, from Delaware headquarters or Maine call centers, stayed in private cabins — of which there were more than a hundred — and availed themselves of the eight-lane bowling alley in their free time. But MBNA has been gone for 15 years. And now, the most conspicuous monument to its local legacy is gone too, everything from the table linens to artworks to landscaping boulders auctioned off.
Midcoast Mainers of the mid-’90s and early aughts remember Cawley for expensive whims and exacting standards: his immaculate fleet of vintage cars or his habit of buying local properties at above-market prices and fixing them up, only to tear them down and build anew. One year, he had countless tulips planted all over his Camden campus for Easter, though a frost killed them the very next day.
Bull market: A male and female taxidermy moose sold for $4,500 and $1,600, respectively. Their new home is the Lobster Pound, in nearby Lincolnville Beach. In advance of the
Cawley brought MBNA to Maine in 1993, opening a small call center in Camden. Motives were partly personal — he’d spent shore summers with his grandfather, who ran a midcoast dressmaking business. But also, the decline of small-town fisheries and mills provided a workforce hungry for stable desk jobs. Soon, Cawley’s company employed 4,500 people across the state, mostly in customer service and debt collection.
The Economist called Cawley “a rip-roaring old-style corporate boss,” likening him to a Carnegie or Rockefeller. His success started with an innovation, so-called “affinity cards” cobranded with organizations such as universities or sports teams to create customer loyalty. He grew MBNA into one of the country’s most profitable companies thanks to Delaware’s lax attitude toward usury and to universal default, a policy of upping individuals’ interest rates for falling behind on unrelated debts, such as car loans and mortgages. He also got chummy with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, then representing Delaware in Congress, was known as “the senator from MBNA.” In 1996, an exec bought Biden’s house, and the company hired Biden’s son, Hunter. The next year, Biden spoke at an MBNA event in Maine.
On the midcoast, Cawley made like a model citizen, using MBNA money to fund schools, grow libraries, endow museums, restore theaters, and support hospitals. The litany of projects, plus thousands of jobs, set the region on the upswing. In the Island Journal, longtime local reporter Tom Groening would later recall the era as the “midcoast miracle,” writing that “corporate and personal giving — particularly on the part of Cawley — gave new meaning to the word generosity.”
The miracle came to an abrupt end. Cawley left MBNA in 2003, after the board balked at increasing his $50 million annual compensation package. Two years later, Bank of America purchased the company and cut its Maine ties. In 2015, Cawley died in his Camden home. Point Lookout went through subsequent owners and iterations, hosting conferences and weddings and the like, before a couple from Montana acquired it last year for an undisclosed sum, to use as a private residence. To lower the property-tax bill, they decided to ditch many existing structures. Cabins were listed through a real estate agency, and Thomaston Place Auction Galleries was tasked with selling what remained.
Auction items included Point Lookout’s recreation facilities (a whole climbing wall, a whole bowling alley), truckloads of maintenance and kitchen equipment, and the beautiful oak and mahogany bars from soon-to-be deconstructed Hedges Hall, what had been an event space.
A few days before the auction, potential buyers and curious neighbors toured a preview. In the ballroom, bins brimmed with industrial-size whisks and stacks of gold-rimmed dessert plates. A salad spinner was the size of a small washing machine. “I hadn’t been in there in years,” said Elizabeth Lane, a former MBNA employee. She was eyeing the old-timey popcorn pushcart for Bayside Store, the nearby market and deli she runs. “Going in was gut-wrenching,” she said. “I was almost physically ill. It used to be just absolutely immaculate and beautiful and warm. Our children had all their birthday parties there. It stood for so much.”
The bowling alleys went first, in pairs, for about $3,000 — one set to a New Hampshire hotelier, three to a Stockton Springs man who planned to install one in his home and sell the others to a summer camp. Rockland-based developer Mike Mullins bought the 18,000-square-foot conference center for $21,000, to dismantle it and store the pieces until he can repurpose it. The 11,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion went for $2,200. A trio of urinals fetched $650. Thirteen hours, 850 separate lots, and half a million dollars later, the auction ended on a portable defibrillator. It went to an online bidder for $750.