Down East 2013 ©
(Watch a video of Rockport Harbor here )
Sometimes you have to get knocked down to learn how tall you can stand. Few places prove this point better than Rockport, where the postcard-perfect village has in the past half-dozen years endured everything from the near collapse of two longstanding cultural institutions to a fire, a flood, and the almost complete evacuation of businesses from its downtown. But recently a new generation of leaders has stepped forward to take some of the village’s most cherished assets in hand, and the community they’ve begun to raise is suddenly poised to become one of the most intriguing in the midcoast. After 120 years of living in the shadow of Camden, its touristy sibling to the north, and Rockland, the industrial neighbor to the south, the village of Rockport is establishing its own identity as a cultural destination.
“Typically in Maine the downtown has played the role of the heart and soul of a community,” says Robert Peabody, Rockport’s town manager. “Rockport has always had Rockland and Camden as commercial districts, so our downtown has evolved on a smaller scale.” But what the village has lacked in businesses — just a tiny fraction of the town’s revenue is generated from commercial activity within the 154-acre village — it has long made up for in cultural vitality.
Beginning with the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1930s and continuing through the creation of Maine Coast Artists (now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art) in 1952, Bay Chamber Concerts precisely fifty years ago, and the Maine Photographic Workshops in 1973, Rockport has long exerted a distinct pull on artists.
“People often talk about the ‘magic’ that happens here,” remarks Charles Altschul, the president of Maine Media Workshops and College, the latest incarnation of Maine Photographic Workshops. “We’re thrilled to be part of the change we’re seeing recently.”
Establishing a fresh identity is nothing new to Rockport. The first time, after Camden residents filed to split off from the “Goose River men” in 1891, was easy. Rockport, which stretched north along Penobscot Bay from Glen Cove to Union Street less than a mile from Camden Harbor, found itself with three-quarters of Camden’s original land mass, half the population, and the lucrative lime and ice industries. The town flourished as an industrial seaport during the early twentieth century, with a narrow-gauge railroad hauling lime to the kilns at the harbor and a busy trolley line carrying passengers through town on the way from Warren and Rockland to Camden and beyond.
The advent of the automobile, and the rerouting of Route 1 in 1948 away from the village, led to the town’s second period of prosperity. Businesses of all types flocked to the busy new corridors of Routes 1, 17, and 90. Dentists, restaurants, hotels, shops, and a hospital all capitalized on the locals who commuted on these roads and the waves of tourists who used them to reach destinations like Camden and Bar Harbor. In the 1970s and ’80s Rockport Harbor even got an attraction of its own when Andre, a harbor seal trained by local diver Harry Goodridge, began offering regular performances and achieved worldwide fame (his granite statue in Marine Park remains a popular photo-op for the younger set).
But by the early years of the new millennium, Rockport village was not sharing in the prosperity of other areas within the 12,750-acre town. Virtually every storefront, from the circa-1891 Opera House on Central Street to the bridge over the Goose River, was empty. The Sail Loft Restaurant on the harbor closed in 2001 to allow Taylor Allen to focus on his core boatbuilding business at Rockport Marine. The Corner Shop, once a popular breakfast joint on the ground floor of the Granite Block on Central Street, passed through a series of owners and failed to maintain a sufficient following. The lone commercial holdout on Pascal Avenue all the way to Route 1 was a high-end clothing shop operating out of a converted general store. Almost all commercial activity had migrated to the busy highway corridors.
As residential property values skyrocketed (the average home price rose from $185,759 to $439,753 between 1995 and 2002), year-round residents found themselves greeting more seasonal neighbors. The village’s immaculately maintained homes became increasingly dark from Columbus Day to Memorial Day. Its half-dozen delightful pocket parks, from the easy-to-miss, wonderfully terraced Mary Lea Park on Central Street to four-acre Cramer Park with its crumbling lime-tailing hillsides and shaded footpaths, stood empty for much of the year. Even the elementary school moved west from its old location at the edge of the village into a shiny new building — constructed without a single sidewalk to connect it to the “heart and soul” of Rockport. “It was pretty lonely,” says Kim Graffam, whose family has some of the deepest roots in Rockport. “You only had a couple of cars on the street, and it was kind of sad, really.”
And, yet, even more significant problems lurked underneath the veneer of this small town, population 3,300. In late 2005, Bay Chamber Concerts, which had evolved out of the Curtis Institute and was operating out of an old schoolhouse in the village, moved to Bay View Street in Camden, citing the need for more foot traffic to boost awareness and ticket sales. In November 2006, after years of attempted creative financing arrangements, Camden National Bank foreclosed on the $3.9 million in loans that had kept Maine Photographic Workshops afloat. The village couldn’t seem to catch a break: a 2007 fire damaged the Shepherd block, Central Street’s most prominent building. A water leak flooded Union Hall, damaging a collection of historic photographs housed there. Finally, in late 2009, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art stunned the community and its patrons when it abruptly laid off its staff and announced that it was closing its doors for the winter — the first such closure in more than a decade.
The problems facing Rockport village and its cultural institutions did not go unnoticed by those who had grown to love the village the most, among them Altschul and Joyce Tenneson, a world-renowned art photographer who had maintained a relationship with the Maine Photographic Workshops since its earliest days. A cocktail party at Tenneson’s home on the harbor led to the formation of “The Rockport Six,” a group consisting of Barbara Goodbody, a local photographer and philanthropist; Joan Welsh, former head of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School and now a state legislator; Peter Ralston, co-founder of the Island Institute; John Claussen, a noted Camden environmental lawyer; and Altschul and Tenneson. After a full winter of negotiations with David Lyman, the Maine Photographic Workshops’ founder and owner, the group reopened the school in the spring of 2007 as a new nonprofit: Maine Media Workshops and College.
A key player in those negotiations was an entirely new face in Rockport, and one who would have a pivotal role in the village’s transformation. Patrick Bienvenue, president of the New York- and Salt Lake City-based investment group Leucadia Development Corporation, had discovered the village while on his way to scout a property on Islesboro.
Leucadia already had a growing number of holdings ($45.8 million worth at last count, some 20 percent of it in Rockport village) in the Penobscot Bay area, and under Bienvenue’s guidance had quietly approached Camden National Bank and asked to take over the Maine Photographic Workshops’ financial liabilities. Eventually Leucadia would deed over to Maine Media Workshops approximately ten acres and a half-dozen campus buildings on a quiet side street, though the school still pays rent on several other properties to Leucadia, including its gallery in the Shepherd building. Today, Maine Media Workshops and College finds itself in the odd position of being both a tenant of Leucadia and a beneficiary of it. (Bienvenue and other representatives of Leucadia declined to be interviewed for this story.)
In addition to the properties that comprised Maine Media Workshops’ campus, Leucadia also purchased five buildings along Central Street, including the worse-for-wear Union Hall and the still-fire-damaged Shepherd block, as well as a vacant lot and a large parking area. The company immediately set about renovating the Shepherd block, but it did so with two types of tenants in mind: a restaurateur and a cultural organization. It found the former in Brian Hill, whose Francine Bistro in Camden had proven the market for high-end dining without a stuffy atmosphere. Hill’s new venture, Shepherd’s Pie, would be slightly more casual than Francine but with the same attention to quality. The gastropub celebrated its one-year anniversary on Memorial Day, and so far its biggest problem has been finding enough tables and chairs for everyone looking to try the clam tacos and other sought-after specialties earning raves. (Even the bathroom is noteworthy, commanding the most impressive ocean view of any restaurant loo in the state!)
For a cultural nonprofit, Leucadia looked to Bay Chamber Concerts, which was approaching its golden anniversary. The concert group had grown to cover four venues from Rockland to Camden in the decade since it had left Rockport’s village, and it was excited about the possibility of returning. “If you asked most Bay Chamber patrons, they’d say we never left, because they think of the Rockport Opera House as our home,” says Monica Kelly, Bay Chamber’s executive director. “But when we made the decision last year to start our Community Music School, we were in the market for new offices and rehearsal space. Leucadia was willing to fit up the building to our specifications, with complete soundproofing, and so now we have about four thousand square feet altogether, including the whole top floor of the building.”
While Kelly sees more work ahead for the village — finding someone to reopen the Corner Shop should be a priority, she says — the reemergence of both young and old on Central Street is a positive sign. “From the point of view of the town and the year-round residents, to see the activity here is really heartening,” she says. “A lot of it is kids, carrying their little violin cases, and that’s just wonderful.”
Not all the vitality in Rockport these days can be traced to Leucadia. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), after struggling to regain its footing and reputation following the mass layoffs and closure in 2009, saw longtime curator Bruce Brown return temporarily so that new director Suzette McAvoy could transition the art institution more diplomatically and strategically. An “Art Lab” for both adults and children was built last winter, part of an increased outreach effort into the community. Collaborations with Bay Chamber Concerts and Maine Media Workshops have begun. Operating under a $330,000 budget and just two staff — about half its pre-layoff self — the CMCA has undertaken a change of course under an almost entirely reconstructed board. “Part of our mission has been to put a new face on the CMCA, to communicate that new things are happening here, and to do our part to be an active participant in the rebirth of Rockport village,” McAvoy says, noting that the nonprofit now also exhibits art not specifically related to Maine. Last year visitation was 7,800 — just over half what it was at the CMCA’s peak — but McAvoy hopes to greet more than ten thousand people this summer.
Kim Graffam, whose family’s oil business occupied the Shepherd block before the building was sold to Leucadia, has experienced Rockport’s rebirth firsthand through her newest venture, Graffam Brothers Seafood Market on Union Street. Opened in 2008, and expanded this year to include a take-out stand across the road, the market saw double-digit growth last year. “There wasn’t a seafood market here, and we thought Rockport was ready for one,” says Graffam, who also serves as the president of Penobscot Bay Ice Company, the corporation that operates her family’s oil and seafood businesses. “It’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
Farther down Pascal Avenue, the space vacated by Leonard’s, a boutique that relocated to Route 1, was given a top-notch overhaul in 2008 by Raymond Ringes and Jason Haynes and transformed into RAYR – The Wine Shop. “When we first moved in, people would come by and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ in kind of an ominous way, like they expected we’d be leaving any day,” says Haynes, who worked as a Web developer in Texas before moving to Rockport. “But business is definitely on the rise, and we absolutely love it here.”
On the harbor, Rockport Marine continues to build its reputation as one of the finest wooden boatbuilders in the world. Owner Taylor Allen personally stands watch over its growth, even constructing an impressive new home on the property as a way to keep his workers employed during lean times. The activity downtown has impressed Allen, whose parents moved to the area in 1962. “I’ve never seen it like this before,” he says. “I don’t think it could get any better.”
Finally, in the block immediately north of the bridge whose construction (and cost) helped lead to the separation of Camden from Rockport 120 years ago, Peter Ralston has just opened a gallery of his own — a fitting investment for one of the original Rockport Six.
Such developments have solidified Rockport’s identity and appeal as a cultural destination of its own, Peabody says. “We all have our niches. Gone are the days when people would come and just go to Camden.” Graffam agrees that establishing its own identity has been critical to Rockport’s vitality. “I’m glad to see the downtown getting more activity. It’s just not set up to be downtown Camden, and I think recognizing that has been a real bonus,” she says.
Despite all the recent growth in Rockport’s village, everyone here recognizes that the future is hardly certain. “For Rent” signs can still be found in a couple of downtown windows, and dilapidated Union Hall, with its tremendous deferred maintenance needs, still occupies the most prominent spot in town. Town Manager Peabody notes that while the lack of year-round residents along the harbor contributes to town coffers — 50 percent of Rockport’s total property tax revenue comes from second homes, which require no town services for nine months of the year — the impact these vacancies have on the village’s vitality during the off season is noticeable. And virtually everyone cites the lack of a consistent breakfast and lunch spot downtown as a noticeable gap in the community.
Like many small towns in Maine and everywhere, Rockport also faces internal challenges that threaten to derail any steps forward. Last spring, for instance, the Selectboard surprised everyone when they voted not to renew Town Manager Robert Peabody’s contract, a decision spurred as much by personal differences and conflict of interest concerns as disagreements about long-range vision. The board eventually rescinded its decision but only after a public backlash. Also like in many other Maine towns, some Rockport residents have vocally debated the price the community pays to support local schools — an especially sensitive subject in a town with an increasingly aging population and where high home valuations result in a smaller state subsidy for education. Peabody believes that the conflicts say as much about economic and political tensions of the day as they do about educational priorities. “We are in a time of heightened awareness of all forms of government and of taxes,” he says. “But you always need to listen to the whole, and not just the few.”
Recently, one of the largest questions looming over the village is what to do with the three-acre parcel — including a prized ball field — that reverted back to town ownership when Rockport Elementary School shifted a mile west up Route 90. In April, a thirteen-member committee recommended that the town pursue negotiations with Maine Media Workshops and College, which has proposed spending up to $4 million to create a new campus on the site. “As long as we’re on this back road, we’ll always be ‘those people from away who fly in and take classes,’ ” declares Altschul. “We see that property, at the intersection of Routes 1 and 90, as a gateway [to Rockport] so it’s critically important that it put on a good face,” he says. Altschul agrees. “Education is pretty great. Art is pretty great. This could be something that is a symbol of a town that is interested in both of those things,” he says. “Rockport really could be the arts center of the midcoast.”
Suzette McAvoy, at the CMCA, believes that regardless of how the school site is redeveloped down the road, the village has already begun taking steps toward creating its future. “There’s a collective energy, an activity level that is giving a lift to the historic village,” she says, as a sea-breeze blows through her office window, bringing with it the sound of a boat being launched at Rockport Marine. “It’s a great community and it’s a beautiful community, and that’s what has always made it special.”