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Chris Gardner might be forgiven if he thought the sun rises with his job.
But, as executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, at the easternmost edge of the Eastern Time Zone, you could argue that the sun does rise on his job.
Still, Gardner has been behind the scenes as a persuasive advocate more often than he's been in the spotlight.
He was instrumental in shipping pregnant cattle from Eastport. Before the breakwater collapsed, Gardner had been sounding the alarm that it needed to be replaced, and was raising both state and federal funds to replace it. He has been at the forefront of efforts to get a rail connector to Eastport — an asset that could cement the deep-water port's status as a key intermodal facility, connecting the United States and Canada to ports in northern Europe.
Eastport (pop. 1,331) is the easternmost city in the United States (though Lubec is the easternmost municipality). It is a small city comprised of islands, the largest of which is Moose Island. Its history was intertwined with the sardine industry, which in the 19th century was tremendously profitable, accounting for 13 sardine factories by 1886, but was in a state of collapse by the late 1930s. Today, the focus is shipping. The natural port is deep enough for the largest container ships. Even in the depths of a Maine winter, the port itself remains active because the 25-foot tides keep water from standing too long to freeze.
In nominating Gardner, Chris Sauer, president and CEO of Ocean Renewal Power Co., and Jett Peterson, chairman of the board of the Eastport Port Authority, cited his larger goals.
“Chris's dedication to not just the Eastport Port Authority, but to the entire Washington County community makes him a key player in Maine's economic future,” Peterson wrote in the nomination.
“He's absolutely committed to helping his community, helping Eastport, helping Washington County. He's also an advocate of thinking big. Unless they do this a different way, history is going to repeat itself,” Sauer says, adding that Gardner embraces new industries.
Gardner has been a popular speaker — and persistent advocate for the area — at commencement addresses, his nominators say. “He's underscored one simple request to graduating students: 'Stay. Stay here and be the future. Stay here and help continue to make the community, the county and state better.'”
Despite his notoriety as a graduation speaker, Gardner was understated when told he was named to the Mainebiz NEXT List.
“This is a very humbling surprise,” says Gardner, who has been director since 2007. “Much of what you speak of are efforts that certainly involve many more than just myself, as you can surely imagine.”
One of Gardner's long-standing tasks has been to rebuild the Eastport breakwater, which collapsed on Dec. 4, 2014, injuring one man and damaging boats. The 400-foot breakwater, which dates to 1962, is the lifeblood of the area's economy. It hosts lobster boats and other fishing vessels but also cargo ships, cruise ships, Navy and Coast Guard vessels, yachts and small craft. As early as 2010, officials had started a campaign to rebuild the breakwater. In 2012, damage on the north side of the breakwater highlighted the need for substantial work. “We recognized we were on borrowed time,” Gardner told the Bangor Daily News in April. In 2013, Gardner applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation's maritime administration for funding to rebuild the breakwater. The effort secured $15 million in state and federal funds and engineering work progressed in 2014.
After the December 2014 collapse, Gardner told the BDN: “If we had started this the morning of the collapse, we'd be four years from getting the money together.”
Yet Gardner's past accomplishments and future goals go beyond the breakwater.
He was successful in getting funding and partnerships to complete a study looking at restoring freight rail service to Eastport. He's been an advocate of finding the money to connect the city's rail lines, dormant since the days of the sardine industry, to the nearest freight terminal, about 30 miles away.
In 2010, the Port of Eastport was approached to handle the export of pregnant dairy cattle. On a short deadline, Gardner worked closely with state and federal authorities to get the necessary permits. To date, the port has shipped 30,000 head of cattle to Turkey and Russia.
In the case of Ocean Renewable Power, Gardner was an early supporter of efforts to establish the Maine Tidal Energy Project, which dates to 2006.
“He told us, 'I don't know if you're crazy or not, but this could be a good thing,'” Sauer recalls, speaking over the cackle of a bad cell connection from Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was caught in a snowstorm while on business.
Gardner has backed ORPC with letters of support for funding applications. He's spoken up on behalf of the company at public meetings.
“He understands where we're at,” says Sauer, adding that ORPC plans to launch a “version 2.0” of its renewable energy design in 2017.
Sauer says Gardner's power of persuasion has grown over the years.
“He's persuasive in a pleasant way,” Sauer says. “I will tell you that, as he's grown older, his credibility has grown. He was always known for his sense of humor — and he still has his sense of humor. But now he's known as a man of substance.”