In December 2014, a huge chapter in the history of Bucksport closed forever. The Verso mill ceased paper production, taking with it decades of papermaking history, the livelihoods of hundreds of people and 40 percent of the town’s tax base. It left the community in shock and fearful for the future.
But like many tragedies, most people know how bad things were but far fewer people know the rest of the story that is being written in Bucksport — and it is an important story. Out of the shadow of the mill, the light began to shine on other aspects of the community. When change hits, a common response is caution. Faced with the unfamiliar and surrounded by the uncertain, the town could have put the brakes on everything. Instead, the community picked itself up, and it is headed for the future.
The community’s elected and appointed leaders worked to gain an early adjustment of the municipal valuation, resulting in increased state aid for education to lower the burden for local property taxpayers. The Town Council made a conscious decision to maintain public services through this crisis by utilizing 25 percent of the funds that had been set aside over the years to prepare for the consequences of a mill closure to stabilize the property tax rate.
The people stepped up, and they became more engaged with not just their local government but with their community as well. More businesses began to open on Main Street, filling the empty storefronts, and membership is growing in the local chamber of commerce. The local marina, purchased by the town in 2013, is thriving, with seasonal space sold out before the 2017 season, and it is funded entirely through the fees paid by boaters and users of the facility. The waterfront is a major asset for the community, and the town is working to expand opportunities there.
And real estate began to sell. Local real estate agents have said they are busier than they have been in years. People are moving to Bucksport from other areas of Maine and from out of state, as well. People are drawn to the location — just 18 miles from the employment centers of Bangor, Brewer, Ellsworth and Belfast — the beauty of the area, the good school system, the good public services, reasonable property tax rate and real estate available at reasonable prices.
The town has received a broadband planning grant, and it is exploring its options for increasing broadband internet access to the community to attract businesses and residents and to improve opportunities for the businesses and residents who already call Bucksport home.
The company that purchased the Verso mill is 90 percent complete with the Phase 1 deconstruction of the site, with Phase 2 to be completed next May. The company, AIM Development, and the town are working cooperatively to find new businesses for the former mill site. With power, the only rail access in Hancock County and deepwater port on the river as assets, the former Verso mill site has the potential to attract a range of business and employment opportunities.
The arts have emerged as a vital part of the community through the Bucksport Area Cultural Arts and its juried summer art festival over the summer and the Lighthouse Arts Studio and the dozens of artists that offer lessons, studio exhibits or both. Then there is the award-winning Wednesdays on Main program that brings live music, puppetry, films and great food to Main Street during the summer. Northeast Historic Film sponsored a juried film festival in the fall that drew many new people to the community, and there are plans for such events to continue.
Next year is the 225th anniversary of the town of Bucksport, the 20th anniversary of the Bucksport Bay Festival and the 130th anniversary of the library. Plans are underway for a spectacular combo event that incorporates all three milestones in the summer 2017.
And, finally, the biggest things that Bucksport has going for it as it moves into the future are its momentum and community spirit. The positive energy of its residents and businesses and their willingness to work together for the future of the community is the foundation on which all community success is based.
Susan Lessard is the town manager of Bucksport.