Working Waterfront Initiative

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Case Study: Purchasing a Town Landing

Year-round island communities must work doubly hard to secure water access--maintaining it along their own shores and on the mainland where they travel for food, supplies, health care, and often education and work. The 130 full-time residents of the Cranberry Isles, five separate islands off Mt. Desert Island (MDI), recognized that they were becoming vulnerable as competition for parking and mooring spaces on MDI increased. "We realized that we needed to step forward and become a little more self-sufficient," explains year-round island resident Eve Harrison. "We needed to put some legs under ourselves."

The town held three community meetings, gradually building support for a bold initiative of unprecedented scope--the purchase of a 3-acre parcel in Southwest Harbor, with a seasonal pier and 11,000-square-foot storage building, that had been slated for condo development. The financial cost of the project was daunting, but as island lobsterman Dave Thomas says, "they're not making any more waterfront and this was the last best chance we had."

Acquisition of the $2.4 million property catapulted the small volunteer-run town into a whole new mode of operation. "This effort got year-round and seasonal residents to communicate like never before on issues of mutual concern," says Frank Reece, a seasonal island resident. "Increased communication and civic engagement have fostered a much stronger sense of community and may reshape the way the town is governed."

The community raised funds for its purchase by borrowing against increased levels of future taxes, securing a 20-year-loan from the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. It hired fundraising consultants to seek contributions that would lower its long-term debt load. The Maine Coastal Program hosted a workshop to help town members strategize how to make the new operation self-sustaining. The workshop inspired formation of a Municipal Facilities Commission to oversee redevelopment of the site, prepare a business plan for the property and support the town selectmen. Already the Town has completed a parking area that accommodates 130 vehicles and has remodeled an existing boatyard building to serve as an interim waiting room.

Through this intensive planning process, many community members have come forward to contribute skills and time. "It's been an amazing catalyst for all kinds of things--in a good way," says Eve Harrison, "pushing us to learn how to organize, how to communicate and how to follow through." The community has had its share of challenges as it grows from what Thomas calls a "sleepy little town" into a role that requires sophisticated administration and accountability. That is to be expected, the project participants acknowledge: it is, Harrison says, "a necessary part of getting somewhere."

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