The controversy in Westbrook over Pike Industries' plans to build an asphalt plant at its quarry on Spring Street has entered a new era. No longer is the debate -- which has pit Pike Industries against some neighbors in the Five Star Industrial Park, most notably Idexx Laboratories -- only taking place in boardrooms, city council chambers and even courtrooms. The controversy has moved to the streets, so to speak.
Pike Industries and Citizens for Balanced Growth in Westbrook, a local citizens' group formed to support Pike's proposal, have organized the 2009 Rock 'n Road Tour to give people, as a newspaper ad reads, "the full story".
The three-hour bus tour takes people through Pike's Spring Street quarry in Westbrook and its facilities in Poland, where it currently operates a quarry and asphalt plant. As an added incentive to rally people to the cause, boxed lunches are provided. Helping orchestrate the bus tour is the ubiquitous local PR man Dennis Bailey, who says Pike hired him about two months ago to oversee the company's marketing campaign.
Mailings went out to Westbrook residents and ads were placed in the paper urging people to come on the tour. "See for yourself how Pike is providing rock-steady employment in Westbrook and other southern Maine communities," the ad reads. Three tours were scheduled, including the final one, which is set for tomorrow (April 29) evening from 5-8 p.m.
Eyeing a chance to get closer to the story, Mainebiz sent a reporter to take the first tour, which began Friday morning at Pike Industries' maintenance facility on Spring Street, just down the road and across the street from the quarry in question. There were nearly 20 people on the bus chartered from VIP, including a local blogger, two reporters, a few people from Citizens for Balanced Growth in Westbrook, a few PR people and John Koris, environmental manager for Pike's operations in Maine. The actual tour-ists numbered about 15 and were mostly elderly locals interested in the latest community controversy.
The tour begins with a quick loop through Pike's maintenance facility on Spring Street, after which the bus turned into Five Star Industrial Park, passing several businesses, including Olympia Sports' New England headquarters, D&G Machine Products, Artel, a Planet Dog warehouse and, of course, Idexx. From the street outside D&G Machine Products and Idexx, Pike's two closest neighbors in the park, Pike's quarry is not visible behind a large buffer of woods, although stacks from Calpine's nearby power generator are.
Koris, Pike's sole employee on the tour, stood at the front of the bus giving context to what the tourists were seeing. "This looks like industrial to me," he says as we pass D&G Machine Products, a reference to Pike's opponents' claim that Pike and its industrial activities are out of place in Five Star Industrial Park.
The quarry has been operating since the 1960s when it was owned by Blue Rock Industries, one of the park's first tenants. Pike purchased the property in 2005 and employs 20 to 150 people there depending on the season.
Pike Industries has a quarry on Spring Street and a quarry and asphalt plant on Main Street in Westbrook. The quarry on Main Street is nearing depletion, but the Spring Street quarry still has another 100 years in it, according to the American Journal. Pike wants to consolidate its operations on Spring Street and build a new, high-tech asphalt plant there. As for the Main Street site, the company has proposed a $114 million mixed-used development, complete with a quarry-turned-pristine-lake. But a group of local businesses, led by Idexx, and a citizens group, Westbrook Works, have opposed the plan, saying it would hurt property values and stifle development of Westbrook's high-tech cluster. City councilors are considering rezoning the site to allow only light industrial uses, which would not permit an asphalt plant. Pike has sued the city over the proposed rezoning.
(For a good play-by-play of the controversy, check out this post from John Morgan's blog -- Westbrook Diarist. Morgan, a Westbrook resident, also took the Rock 'n Road Tour on Friday.)
On the bus, Koris says Pike made every effort to be a good neighbor, visiting nearby companies in the park beforehand to talk about its proposal, trying to appease companies like Idexx by changing its proposal. But Koris says everything the company has done has been met by opposition. "We're not getting any good answers [for the opposition], except that we don't fit into the high-tech vision they have," Koris says.
The tour headed to Poland, where Pike operates a quarry and an asphalt plant that was built in the 1970s. The idea was to demonstrate that a similar facility on Spring Street would not disturb neighbors. There wasn't any activity in the quarry, but the asphalt plant was humming away. There also wasn't much noise. Koris says the new one that Pike wants to build in Westbrook would be even quieter, thanks to new technology. He said during a tour with Idexx officials last year, the people couldn't tell where the quarry was located when they were parked in a neighborhood about 300 feet through the woods.
Members of the Citizens for Balanced Growth in Westbrook lobbied the tour-takers to attend the May 4 meeting of the Westbrook Zoning Board, which is scheduled to make a decision on Westbrook Mayor Bruce Chuluda's proposal to rezone Pike's property as light manufacturing, effectively quashing its plans for the asphalt plant.
That's where Pike will see if its bus rally succeeded in getting out its message. Ron Usher, a 47-year Westbrook resident, former legislator and a member of Citizens for Balanced Growth in Westbrook, still has hope of an amicable outcome. "We can work this out," Usher says. "I think all businesses want to work together. I really do."
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