Economic development writing: The story of Eastport, Maine

There are a couple of things about this story that are worth mentioning: First of all, it was always exciting to get one of my Maine stories published in a big-city newspaper somewhere. Getting one of those stories into a Boston newspaper was good, but getting something printed in a big paper in some more distant locale was cool indeed.  This story was carried by the New York Daily News, and that didn’t happen every day. Second, it’s a story about Eastport, Maine, just about the most distant and remote community in the entire state. Go north along the U.S. coast, and just about the last U.S. town you will pass near is Eastport (okay, okay, to be perfectly accurate, the actual border crossing is in Calais, a few miles away). Back in the 70s, a large corporation (the Pittston Co.) decided it wanted to build an oil refinery there.  Eastport had a deep-water harbor that could handle oil supertankers. The refinery never happened because of environmental concerns. I covered a number of hearings in Eastport about this refinery project, and it was a l-o-n-g drive from home.



EASTPORT, Maine (UPI) – This easternmost city in the nation and former sardine capital of the world is dying. The rotting piers and empty storefronts are conspicuous testimony to that.

But a new chapter in Eastport’s history is about to be written. A New York oil company wants to develop an oil refinery on Moose Island, just outside the downtown area.

Eastport has one huge, underdeveloped natural resource. That is a beautiful, sheltered harbor three by five miles wide and between 90 and 385 feet deep. The harbor, big enough to handle the biggest supertankers, is often called one of the three best deep-water harbors on the East Coast.

The Pittston Oil Co. of New York has announced plans for a $350 million, 650-acre refinery that would produce 250,000 barrels of heating oil and industrial fuel per day.

Some Eastport people are thrilled. Some are not.

City Manager Everett Baxter says the refinery will mean lower taxes, more jobs and a new chance for the empty city.

“It is going to increase the tax base a hell of a lot,” said Baxter in his office in the City Rooms on the top floor of an old brick building across from the Waco Diner. The police station is on the first floor and a bank is on the second.

Eastport’s only newspaper now is the twice-a-month Quoddy Tides, whose editor, Mrs. Inez French, is a strong opponent of the refinery. She estimates that the townspeople are evenly divided on the subject.

“It’s about half and half,” she said. “They’re trying to get a referendum so they can vote on it. They’re afraid the town would be taken over, and they’re afraid there won’t be all that many jobs.”

Pittston has said the refinery will employ up to 2,200 persons during construction and about 300 when it is completed.

“They say it would employ about 300,” Baxter said. “About 275 would be locally obtained. That makes a hell of a lot of impact.”

“It is the only thing I see right now that would have any effect on the economy.”

Traders and fishermen worked the Eastport area in the 1600s. It was a smuggling center in the early 1800s and was seized by the British during the War of 1812 and held for two years. In the late 1800s, Eastport developed into a busy fishing and packing community.

It was the sardine that made Eastport famous after the Civil War. The first packing plant was built in 1874. A few years later, the population rose by 5,000 and there were about 20 sardine plants packing the fish.

The boom slowed, and by 1940 the population had dropped to 3,300. By 1960, it was 2,500, and by 1970, the latest figures available, it had fallen to 1,987. There were no jobs, and young people left for work down the coast.

Baxter believes the economic gains of the refinery outweigh the risks.

“You can’t eliminate all the risks, but to me it is a matter of determining what the risks are, reducing them to what’s reasonable, and going from there.”

Mrs. French is not sure it is that easy.

“”I question whether the controls can be enforced,” she said. “And I don’t believe it represents that many jobs. And once heavy industry gets in, it is in.”

“The city needs something,” she said, “but I’m not sure oil is it.”


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