A lone pedestrian walks down Main Street in Calais, the largest municipality in Washington County, in this Feb. 5, 2020 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Washington County, long one of the poorest counties in Maine, continues to struggle to retain residents after its population fell by more than 5 percent over the past decade.

Overall, the county’s population shrank by more than 1,700 residents between 2010 and 2020, according to recently released 2020 census data. The county had 32,856 residents a decade ago, and last year had 31,095, its lowest population in the past 50 years.

A continuing dearth of economic opportunities in the county is the primary reason the county’s population has been on the decline since 1990, said two officials in Washington County — one a county commissioner and port director and the other with a not-for-profit economic development group. The county’s aging population is dying off from natural causes, and there aren’t enough young people staying in the county to offset that loss of people.

“There are not enough kids to replace people who are passing away,” said Charles Rudelitch, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council. “This is the result of trends that have been decades in the making.”

Population losses in and around Baileyville, where one of the state’s roughly half dozen remaining paper mills still employs approximately 400 people, were relatively high. Crawford, Princeton and Meddybemps each lost between 10 and 11 percent of their populations, Baileyville lost 13 percent, while Baring lost 20 percent. Calais — which has more than 3,000 residents, making it the largest municipality in Washington County — lost less than 2 percent of its population.

Rudelitch said the mill has been one of the county’s economic bright spots over the past decade. Prior to that, however, steadily declining employment levels and then uncertainty over the mill’s future in the 2000s contributed to the outflow of area residents. As other Maine mills have shut down, and as work commutes have gotten longer, it may be that the mill has a higher percentage of employees who live outside Washington County than it used to, he said.

Despite the county’s continued population drop, five small inland towns had double-digit population growth rates, while four more grew between 5 and 9 percent. But the 185 total residents that those nine towns gained — plus another three dozen or so scattered among a few other towns — matter little compared to a population loss 10 times as large.

Several coastal towns also had significant rates of population decline.

Addison, Jonesport and Lubec — each with roughly 1,200 residents — each lost 9 percent of their populations, while Cherryfield, Columbia and Perry each lost roughly 10 percent. Beals, Columbia Falls, Dennysville and Machiasport each lost between roughly 12 and 15 percent of their residents. Machias, the county’s second largest municipality with 2,000 people, lost more than 7 percent and Whitneyville lost 8 percent.

Four very small towns on state roads that lead away from the coast toward Route 9 grew between 20 and 30 percent. All together, Beddington, Deblois, Northfield and Wesley gained 81 residents since 2010.

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of weekly vacation rental properties in the county’s coastal towns, which could be why some inland towns have seen slight population increases, said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission and executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. Rather than moving out of the county, a few residents may be just moving 10 or 20 miles farther from the coast.

“You’re seeing a rise in property values along the coastline,” Gardner said, adding that summer residents from out of state also are adding to the housing demand. “There aren’t a lot of vacant houses in Eastport, and new houses are being built.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardner said, Eastport and other municipalities in the county were promoting themselves as places where people could move to and hold down jobs online. The 2020 census numbers, he said, already may be obsolete because demand for houses in Washington County has soared since last summer, after the census was taken.

“The real estate market is on fire in Washington County,” Gardner said. “I think it might be a different story if the census had been taken later.”

The number of Washington County home sales in the three-month period from May through July was nearly 30 percent higher this year than in the same period last year, according to figures released Monday by the Maine Association of Realtors. The median sales price also grew in that period, to $160,000 from $127,100 a year ago.

Despite the telecommuters and people on vacation, Gardner said, there needs to be more year-round economic development in Washington County to help prevent younger people from leaving.

“We have to find a balance,” he said. “Tourism jobs don’t pay many bills in February.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....