BUCKSPORT, Maine — When the Verso paper mill closed seven years ago, Bucksport lost 40 percent of its tax base and hundreds of jobs.
“It was kind of depressing,” said Kathy James, the owner of the Lighthouse Gallery on Main Street. James bought her art gallery space just after the mill closed in 2014. Teri Doty had moved to Bucksport from California around the same time.
“There were a lot of people who panicked because the mill was closing,” said Doty, now the executive director of the Bucksport Bay Business Coalition, which formed after the town’s chamber of commerce closed during the pandemic. “We were kind of thinking, ‘jeez, what did we do?’”
But in the time since the mill closed, Bucksport has worked to make itself a destination with a burgeoning downtown. An exclamation point was put on that fact recently when the town was named the best small coastal town in America in a contest run by USA Today — beating out more famous locales such as Cape May, New Jersey, and Del Mar, California.
The award may only offer bragging rights, but it highlighted the efforts that town officials, residents and businesses have made to revive the town, no matter what happens at the sprawling site of the former paper mill. Bucksport now boasts more filled storefronts in its downtown and new seafood processing businesses. Taxable sales in the town were $5 million higher last year than in 2014. And that’s all before the primary occupant of the former paper mill site even breaks ground on its long-expected salmon aquaculture facility.
“The town has done everything to make itself successful without being reliant on that mill property,” said Rich Rotella, Bucksport’s community and economic development director. “Anything that happens there now is icing on the cake.”
For decades, the mill was the heartbeat of the town. A steel mill was first constructed in the late 1800s, before being replaced with a tannery. In 1929, the dawn of the paper age reached Bucksport when the Maine Seaboard Paper Co. bought the mill property. The last iteration of the mill, the Verso Paper Corporation, closed in 2014, taking more than 500 jobs with it.
It was a turning point for the small town on the Penobscot River.
“When the mill closed, Bucksport didn’t sit here waiting for something,” said Susan Lessard, the town manager. “We didn’t think for a minute of waiting around for someone to swoop in.”
Instead, they turned to other areas of town that needed help.
“The first thing was to fill up the vacant storefronts on Main Street,” Rotella said. The town has attracted several new downtown businesses since the mill’s closure, patching most of the holes along Main Street; added events and festivals, including the town’s first Pride event held this summer; and worked to support the existing business community.
“In our region, Bucksport was the first mill town out of the gate to acknowledge and start to transform by diversifying their local economy,” said Lee Umphrey, the president of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, which helped with the turnaround.
At her art gallery earlier this month, James said the town is not quite where it wants to be yet, but it has been coming along and she is hopeful for the future. She’s seen more stores open and felt that the town shouldn’t depend on the development at the mill site for its future.
“If it helps us, great, but we have to move on and do what we can,” she said.
The town had the foresight to set aside surplus money in the years leading up to the closure to soften the economic punch and the Eastern Maine Development Corp. helped mill workers find services and employment.
Bucksport now has a lobster processing plant, a mussel facility, a friar-run brewpub and bakery, beauty salons, a pet supply store, and several restaurants along with its long-time storefronts. Main Street has more businesses now than it did when the mill closed and in 2020, the town had $5 million more in taxable sales than in 2014, according to Lessard.
“I know for a fact that I probably can take care of my Christmas shopping in Bucksport and Orland,” said Shelby Sullivan, an Orland resident who works on Bucksport’s main drag.
The roads have been improved, fishing docks were replaced and the town is working to build the only fully handicap accessible public dock on the Penobscot, Lessard said.
Bucksport isn’t without its challenges. A large motel property sits unused after it was deemed dangerous by the town. Shop owners said they would still like to see more done to make the town attractive to visitors and residents alike.
But even the problems show how far Bucksport has come. With all the new businesses, like everywhere else, there is a shortage of employees. Perhaps unthinkable at the time of the Verso closure, the community now is actually in need for more housing and space for business.
One of the big things for Lessard is that the town’s transformation has come before the Verso location is filled.
“What we accomplished has been done without an additional dollar spent on that mill site,” she said.
The mill site is in the process of being redeveloped. Maine Maritime Academy has added a professional mariner development center, a church has moved in and Whole Oceans has plans to open a land-based salmon aquaculture project, though the company has yet to break ground two years after securing its key permits.