Joe’s Journal

JEDC - What gives?

Posted:  Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 7:15am

As the snow and winds swirled around the Boothbay Fire Station last week, about 50 of our friends and neighbors gathered to talk about the future of our communities.

It is about time.

For the last year or so, whether you live in Southport, Edgecomb, Boothbay or Boothbay Harbor our recent civic discussion has featured complaints about change.

We all have heard the negative comments. Why are they changing the road, expanding the Botanical Gardens, changing the Harbor? Why can’t it stay as it is? Why do “they” want to do that? They will ruin it for us all. Who do they think they are to change “our” towns.

Our friends in Wiscasset are in the same mode, as they wrestle with a two-edged sword. I refer to the longstanding tax revenue hole caused by the shuttering of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, and the 30-year-plus imbroglio triggered by a major highway running through the middle of downtown.

In the pages of our favorite newspaper, you have seen stories about something called JEDC, a joint economic development committee. It is an attempt to bring together fiercely independent towns, separated by geography and attitude, to work on a common problem. Negative growth.

What do you mean? Every year, when the flowers bloom and the warm breezes blow, our towns wake up from “a long winter's nap,” dust out their storefronts and welcome thousands of happy tourists eager to exercise their VISA and Master Cards. Our summer friends, “from away,” always come back to their picturesque cottages which provide the bulk of the property tax money we use to keep the municipal lights burning, roads plowed and schoolhouse doors open.

Why should we do anything to change this quaint New England seaside village? It has worked for a hundred years, why should we change?

“It is the changing demographics,” said Dan Bryer, the Boothbay town manager. “We are losing school population. It is significant enough to force us to come up with some sort of plan.”

Let’s look at the numbers. Between 2000 and 2015, the population of Boothbay Harbor dropped from 2,334 to 1,855. That is a loss of 479 residents – a 20.5 percent loss. Southport went from 684 to 630, a loss of 7.9 percent.

Boothbay schools reflect this trend. In October 2012, there were 630 students in the elementary and high schools. Just four years later, in October 2017, that number had dropped to 499. Breyer said the overall downward growth is something that has never really happened before, and it forced the leaders of the four towns to begin to work together to reverse that trend.

“We are working together to figure out what the community wants to do,” said YMCA director Andy Hamblett. “If we just let it happen, we might not like the result.”

At a recent community meeting, moderated by consultants hired to help the JDEC process, the committee set out a series of goals. No, they’re not talking about luring factories with big smokestacks. They are starting with baby steps, like ways to expand the short summer season, like they did with the Botanical Gardens holiday light shows.

Other ideas include working with marine-based businesses, the Bigelow Lab, the Boothbay industrial park, seeking revenue sources for existing and new businesses, and ramping up broadband coverage. If you want to invite new families to town, they must have a place to live and our home prices are high for young workers. If we expand our businesses and housing stock, do we have to expand utilities? Are we ready to move into public partnerships to tackle major projects?

Big ideas all, but how will we pay for it?

“If we want to grow, we have to invest in ourselves,” said Wendy Wolf, the JEDC chair.

When he bought the country club, Paul Coulombe said he hoped to attract other capital investment. He has spent millions to upgrade the country club, the Oceanside Golf Resort and partnered with the town to build a new front door for our community. Will it work?

Here is a first sign. Southport’s Ocean Gate Resort, which was listed at $5.9 million, recently sold and the new owner told Maine Biz the region’s recent economic development climate is the reason he plans to spend another $1.2 million on improvements.

Fair enough. But it will take more than consultants, and committees. To help existing business and attract new residents, it will take a community effort. And that, dear reader, means we all have to help. The JEDC folks know there will be no success unless the towns and their residents buy into the programs.

Otherwise, it will be just another dose of the same old, same old.