October 3, 2016
Next 2016

#MBNext16: Elaine Abbott's role in Eastport goes beyond managing a Downeast destination

Photo / Leslie Bowman
Photo / Leslie Bowman
Elaine Abbott, city manager of Eastport, first visited the city in the 1990s and moved there in 2007. She's now one of Eastport's biggest advocates.

The 2016 Mainebiz Next list

Find out what other Maine business leaders made this year's edition of the annual list.

Elaine Abbott

City Manager, Eastport

Stepping-down Nov. 2016

City of Eastport

22 Washington St. Eastport

Employees: 15 full-time

Contact: 853-2300

Elaine Abbott, city manager for Eastport, got word that Google's "street view" images showed a view of the downtown that was dotted with empty stores and "for rent" signs. Worse, Google had last made a stop in Eastport in 2007. Within hours, she was on the horn with Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google has not returned to update the street view, but Abbott is taking an active role in looking out for Eastport's future.

She's been an advocate for Eastport's airport, for its downtown, for its deep-water port. She launched the city's first economic development plan.

Has everything panned out? No, but every town and city in Maine needs a vocal advocate and Eastport has not always had one.

After the collapse of the sardine industry in the 1970s, Maine humorist Tim Sample made a joke about Eastport's "Vacant Building Festival." The joke stuck — but Eastport has evolved.

"I'm don't think he's making the joke anymore. I'd like to get him out here to see Eastport again," Abbott says.

First a visitor, now an advocate

Abbott, 49, plans to step down as city manager at the end of November, for personal reasons, but says she'll continue to be an active voice for economic development in Washington County.

"I will continue to promote Eastport and the region," she says. "This isn't the last Washington County is hearing from me."

She is a native of Belfast, a three-hour drive from Eastport. She first visited Eastport in the 1990s and the memory is etched on her mind: Its main streets, the stately brick buildings downtown, the views of Campobello Island across the bay.

"As soon as I came down Washington Street, I was like, 'Oh, wow. This is beautiful.' I loved the friendliness of the people, the community. This is spectacular," she recalls. "You could see that changes were in the offing. I thought, 'This community is really doing something.'"

In 2007, she returned, this time as a full-time resident.

Eastport is considered the most easterly city in the United States. Lubec is farther east, but is a town.

Eastport's deep-water port has been a hub not only for commercial fishing vessels and visiting pleasure boats, but also for cruise-ship visits — or, it had been until the city main breakwater collapsed on Dec. 4, 2014, just before Abbott took over as interim city manager. The breakwater is expected to be reopened in time for July 4, 2017, when a Navy ship traditionally visits and offers tours. The city will also welcome back a full cruise-ship schedule after that.

"I'm embarrassed to say how little we knew about what a driver the breakwater was for Eastport's economy," she says.

Elsewhere, federal funding will help the city add a new terminal to the Eastport Municipal Airport, which primarily handles private aircraft and the Life Flight Network.

Other upgrades have included roads, wastewater treatment facilities and, perhaps most notably, a plan for improved broadband. The broadband improvement will be implemented by Machias-based Axiom Technologies.

"Businesses are talking about this. They're looking to promote themselves on the internet. But it's also important for retailers like IGA, which needs strong internet to run debit-card sales," she says.

Broadband will improve Eastport's ability to attract not only businesses but telecommuters — people who live in Eastport but receive their paycheck elsewhere. Eastport has 1,293 people and, like many towns and cities in Maine, is trying to attract new residents.

"There's a certain kind of person who is attracted to Eastport," Abbott says. "We're hours from the nearest mall. There are no night clubs. But there are local foods. We have the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra. We have four major festivals. We have community, affordability, small schools. The things some people consider weaknesses, we consider strengths."

In 2013, Atlantic magazine correspondent James Fallows called Eastport, on a per capita basis, "one of the grittiest and most inventive cities in America." He took home 20 jars of Eastport-made Raye's Mustard.

After less than two years on the job, Abbott's passion for Eastport is being recognized. This fall, the Maine Town and City Management Association named Abbott its recipient of the "Rising Star" award.

As for Sample, he has indeed returned to Eastport — many times, he wrote in an email to Mainebiz. He is now one of Eastport's devoted fans, living 35 minutes away, in Calais. His wife even works in Eastport.

"In fact," he wrote, "when your email arrived asking whether I'd been to Eastport lately, my wife and I were, at that very moment, enjoying a delicious post-work chili dog at Rosie's [in Eastport]."

"Over the years I've regularly commented in print about the positive changes taking place in Eastport," Sample wrote. "The bit about 'The Vacant Building Festival' ... springs directly from an old Maine tradition I like to call 'celebrating adversity,' wherein Mainers utilize self-deprecating humor to transform the various and sundry challenges of our hardscrabble Downeast life into sources of pride and badges of honor."

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