Down East 2013 ©
Photo Credit: ©IStockPhoto.com: Subjug(bag); Tsuji (whisk);
Blackred (brush); DNY59 (tree); Csundahl (building)
Roxanne Quimby can sit for hours puzzling over the best way to set the sleeve in the shirt she’s designing. But armhole facings, the drape of a particular fabric, the best shape for a neckline — these are not the first things that come to mind when one hears Quimby’s name.
Instead, for many Mainers the mention of Roxanne Quimby raises a whole host of complicated feelings — some of them negative — about the woman who founded Burt’s Bees while living in a tiny cabin in Guilford, moved the successful company to North Carolina amid accusations about Maine’s unfriendly business climate, used the proceeds from the company’s sale to snap up thousands of acres in the North Woods that she proposed turning into a national park, and announced that snowmobiling, hunting, and other traditional activities would be verboten on her property.
As it turns out, though, there’s a lot that might surprise Mainers about Quimby. In addition to her apparent skill as a seamstress (she hopes to launch a line of Maine-made clothing soon), Quimby turns out to be a warm and witty conversationalist with a wide range of interests — and an impressive ability to shift course when she realizes she’s made a mistake. That’s the assessment of one of her former adversaries, Bob Meyers, who runs the Maine Snowmobile Association. Meyers is one of several North Woods advocates who for the last four years have been meeting quietly with Quimby to discuss ways to balance her interest in preservation and low-impact land usage with Maine’s long tradition of access to private land for hunting, snowmobiling, and other recreational pursuits. “She initiated the dialogue herself, and things just kind of clicked right away,” he says. “It was a good, friendly conversation right from the get-go.”
Simultaneously and a hundred miles south, Quimby has put significant effort into establishing a presence in Portland’s arts scene. The move represents a return to her roots: the sixty-something entrepreneur earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting before moving to Maine in 1975, but put her paints away to support her twin son and daughter. For years she satisfied her creative side by working on Burt’s Bees’ packaging and marketing. Now, she’s decided to support other artists via Quimby Colony, a residency program she launched last summer that provides talented artists with studio space, housing, and meals in downtown Portland.
Quimby hopes the colony will be an engine for economic development in Portland, which she sees as a European-seeming city that “should make an impression on the whole country. Portland has some absolutely amazing things going for it,” she says. “I think we can make a bigger statement — a bolder statement — and attract some of the prosperity that Portland deserves.”
Before moving forward on the project, which thus far has involved the purchase of three sizeable Congress Street buildings, Quimby convened a few dozen local arts insiders, explained her initial concept, and asked for their feedback. Her openness — not to mention the deep pockets of her philanthropic effort, the Quimby Family Foundation — endeared her to the community, according to Nat May, the executive director of Space Gallery, which receives grant funding from the foundation. “She’s very inviting,” he says. “She often hosts get-togethers at her [West End] house with people from the arts community because she’s interested in them and their work. I’m guessing she does so because she wants to be part of the community — she doesn’t just want to be a funder who lives elsewhere.”
And make no mistake: Quimby is a funder of serious proportions. Her foundation distributed $1.8 million in grants to Maine nonprofits this year, about half of it to small arts organizations. Portland-area grantees include the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center, the Maine Jewish Film Festival, Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, and the Portland Symphony Orchestra — a veritable who’s who of the city’s arts and culture establishment. But it’s not just the big guys that draw her attention: Quimby wandered among the booths at Picnic, the indie craft and music festival held in Lincoln Park in August, and is often spotted at gallery openings and other arts events around town.
Still, she didn’t assume that Quimby Colony would be received positively, given the reaction her North Woods plans received several years ago. “At the time, I’d thought, ‘Well, who wouldn’t want a national park?’ so the backlash was really unanticipated,” Quimby says. “When we went into this venture, we didn’t know how it was going to be received — even if it seemed like a good idea to me.”
Quimby’s instinct to gather allies and seek feedback before moving ahead with her artists’ colony reflects the lessons she learned in the process of buying up parcels of land around Baxter State Park. But the opposition she met in the North Woods has not changed her plans to preserve thousands of acres of Maine forestlands. In fact, in early 2010, she bought thirty thousand additional acres in Piscataquis County, a decision that surprised Meyers because of the parcel’s location outside Quimby’s main area of interest, the area between the East Branch of the Penobscot and Baxter State Park. (Quimby, who told Meyers and others about the deal before it went through, says she bought the parcel because “the price was right.”)
In concert with Meyers and others, including Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue and a representative of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Quimby has nearly arrived at what she describes as a “negotiated settlement” regarding access to her property in the North Woods. The deal includes a provision for a permanent north-south snowmobile route between East Millinocket and the Matagamon area, as well as some opportunities within her Katahdin Lake holdings for hunting and sustainable forestry on the east side of the East Branch. These are significant concessions for Quimby, but in exchange she has gained support for keeping motorized access and hunting out of her core ninety thousand acres, which she would like to see under federal management by 2016 — the hundreth anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. “It doesn’t have to be a national park — a national monument would be fine with me,” says Quimby, who notes that she’d like the monument to be named after Henry David Thoreau.
What’s more, for the last several years, Quimby has been buying small parcels of land within the boundaries of existing national parks — including Acadia National Park — when private owners put them up for sale. She plans to give these properties, too, to the Park Service in 2016. “A lot of parks have chunks within them that are owned privately, or the beauty of park will depend on a viewshed that’s in private ownership, so if it were to be developed into homes or condos, there goes that aspect of the park,” she says.
Predictably, these plans — along with Quimby’s appointment in October to the board of directors of the National Park Foundation — enrage some of Quimby’s opponents, including at least one hunting blogger, Tom Remington, who characterizes her as a communist and/or socialist who believes that no one should own land. But as Meyers sees it, Quimby instead is exercising her rights as a private landowner — and is doing so in a way that’s less harmful to his constituents than other recent land deals. “We really appreciate the effort Roxanne makes to understand and address our issues and the local economic development issues,” Meyers says.
At least one observer sees Quimby as an important advocate for the state’s business community. “She spoke out early on about the problems in the business climate in Maine,” says Alan Caron, who founded GrowSmart Maine and now runs an independent think tank called Envision Maine. “She’s a hard person to put in a box — and isn’t she a quintessential Mainer in that way? She’s passionate about a lot of things, and business is one of them.”
Boosting Portland’s economy, preserving the North Woods, designing clothing that will put Maine manufacturers to work — Quimby’s vision is a grand one, and it remains to be seen whether she’ll be able to pull it off. Given her track record in both business and philanthropy, though, Caron thinks one thing is sure: “If it doesn’t work out, she’ll pull back, regroup, rethink, and keep moving.”