After $100 million invested in about 20 properties, Paul Coulombe is still driven by the desire to see the harbor and its peninsula neighbors succeed as a premier economic driver on the Midcoast. Much of his concentration over the past couple years has been on pushing zoning changes on Boothbay Harbor’s Atlantic Avenue – something which would open development possibilities for existing nonconforming uses. It would also benefit Coulombe’s interest in properties he owns and at least two of his former properties of interest.
As selectmen continue on the path to bringing a two-zone initiative to the public, which will see some of his development concerns abated, Coulombe reflected on the process to date in an interview and admitted it has been frustrating at times.
“I think Mainers, and I'm one of those, are suspicious of people who give a lot. 'What's he doing that for? That looks crazy.'”
Considering himself fortunate to have found success and wealth, Coulombe said it is wrong not to give back in some way to the places which helped shape him as a person and provided some of his fondest memories as a child and young adult. Remembering bumper to bumper traffic, stores so packed one could barely move, and lines at the sightseeing boats long enough to bump visitors to the last run, Coulombe said it is something he would like to help restore.
“That doesn't occur anymore. I saw an extremely vibrant community and that really stuck in my mind. I think it can be that, but if you don't reinvest, if you don't rebuild your infrastructure – hotels, motels, restaurants, streets, schools – you start to decline.”
That is why Coulombe came back to the Boothbay region to spend money – not to hold the region to the whims of his wallet, but to help philanthropically. Some of those efforts came through Boothbay Region Ambulance Service, youth membership to Boothbay Region YMCA, and the Coulombe Center for Health Improvement.
The transformation of Rocktide Inn into Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort was an attempt to jumpstart revitalization of the Harbor’s east side, said Coulombe, and new ordinances would have allowed more sweeping updates for, among many projects, the recently sold Cap’n Fish’s. Coulombe abandoned his vision of a New England style-built world class resort for a second time when the rezoning process continued to drag out with a new iteration.
“Working for private business and primarily for myself, I was used to saying something and getting it done yesterday. Timing is everything, time is a luxury, really … I think I'm slightly misunderstood and I think some of that is brought on by myself, by statements and comments I've made in the past. I'm very, very passionate and I have a real love for Boothbay and I think that sometimes maybe comes across with a bit of frustration …”
Despite the frustration, Coulombe commended the planning board for having seen the process through fairly and thoroughly. Expecting it would take a long time, Coulombe said he could never have anticipated the opposition which unfolded. For people opposed to change, or at least his brand of it, Coulombe said change is constantly occurring: “There is no such thing as 'no change' – everything ages.”
However, change and the communities’ relationship with it is only a small part of the problem; like many in the region, Coulombe said he believes affordable housing and education are the two biggest issues facing the communities.
The issue of the schools mostly speaks for itself Coulombe said of the need for the basic and expensive improvements already outlined by the Community School District. Affordable housing is trickier because the term means so many different things to different people, said Coulombe. He believes it means including a variety of options like attached houses, condos, apartment buildings, single family homes and detached villas.
Acknowledging the core of his establishments' employees are mostly seasonal, Coulombe also said he can already see the effects of fall and winter festivities lengthening the shoulder season. Of the 250 to 300 jobs Coulombe brings to the area through the country club and resort, about 35 work all year long in core management positions.
“I've been hiring a minimum of 100 people every winter in construction whether they're painters or carpenters or plumbers, electricians, roofers, architects, designers. I've been doing that for over 10 years. People like to say 'Well, that's temporary, it's construction,' but 10 years times 100 … That's a big, big impact. That changes the community.”
The seasonal versus year round argument does not weigh heavily on Coulombe’s mind, he said, due to the changes which have already come through shoulder season events and the expansion of business months into November and December.
“There are things like winter carnivals and many other ideas discussed and thrown at me all the time and I think all are possibilities. The key is that tourism doesn't always have to be only three months. If we could get it to that nine or 10-month period, then we could all survive and the businesses could thrive and people could have year round jobs.”
Asked what the region does not have that he would like to see, Coulombe said the list is long, but mostly includes things for kids and young families – four or five more movie theater screens and a recreational center including bowling and arcades, among others.
“Or a combination of all those things that entertain our youth. Winters are long and dark and lonely, and kids need a place to go … Any other entertainment vehicles that we could have in the community is helpful. The complaint I get the most is that there's nothing to do … It's important to keep the hands and the mind busy and constructive and productive. Anything that would help us with that, whatever the in-thing-to-do is, would be extremely helpful.”
At the end of the interview, Coulombe walked back his statement about not having any personal interest in development because he said it simply is not true: “There is something in it for me: to see joy on every person's face whether they come off the golf course or have a nice dinner at the hotel or come off the boat or just love being in town and are happy to be there. That gives me the biggest thrill of all. That's my motivation.”