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Updated: October 14, 2019 Focus on Midcoast & Downeast

Machias makes a comeback, after decades of decline

bank construction site Photo / Leslie Bowman With Larry Barker at the helm, Machias Savings Bank has been investing in the local community, including projects like a new $5 million facility on Main Street that aims to provide more jobs.

When he was a child in the 1970s, Larry Barker’s family moved to Machias from Bangor. His mother worked at Helen’s Restaurant, an institution in town. She washed dishes, then waitressed and ultimately bought the restaurant, which is still in the Barker family.

Young Larry earned money raking blueberries, detailing cars, washing dishes — anything and everything.

“You see people juggling a lot of balls, trying to piece together a living,” Barker says. “So it came naturally that I would do a bunch of things.”

In the summer of 1990, he raked blueberries for Edward Hennessey, then-president of Machias Savings Bank. That connection started Barker on his career path. A year later, he started working in the bank’s collection department.

Today, Barker himself leads the bank and is dedicated to cultivating similar prosperity throughout this town of 2,200 residents.

Under his watch, the bank has partnered on initiatives that have included the donation of a vacant Main Street property and $200,000 to the Sunrise County Economic Council to create the Machias Valley Center for Entrepreneurship, to encourage small business creation and growth. In May, the bank kicked off the Machias Valley Airport Capital Campaign with a commitment of $50,000, part of an effort by the town to raise $200,000 toward $5 million in airport improvements. Recently, the bank broke ground on a new $5 million facility on Main Street that will allow it to build workforce and add meeting space, a fitness center and a cafeteria.

Photo / Courtesy of Machias Savings Bank
Machias Savings Bank broke ground in May on its new $5 million facility at 31 Main St.

The activities are part of a positive outlook that’s been unfolding throughout town in the last couple of years.

“The bank is doubling down on its investment in Machias,” says Barker. “You come into town and see an improved airport, new stores and a big crane and a bunch of steel going up. There’s a lot going on. That creates a different mindset. It creates optimism.”

Rendering / Courtesy of Machias Savings Bank
Once completed in 2020, Machias Savings Bank’s new facility will allow the bank to add 50 employees over the next decade and amenities like meeting space, fitness center and a cafeteria.

Incremental change

The words optimism and hope are commonly used these days to describe the Machias outlook. Local observers tell of the town coming to a tipping point, of gradual but incremental improvements, of new energy from town leaders.

“Twenty-four months ago, a number of key stakeholders and business and municipal leaders openly said the first thing that had to happen was hope,” says Bill Kitchen, vice chair of the select board. At that time, “I would have said, ‘We’re at a tipping point. This community can continue to slide into decline, or it can turn around.’”

The decline has been tied to the aging infrastructure — the airport, sidewalks and roads; vacant and rundown buildings, closed businesses. It was also tied to the young people leaving and the aging of the population.

“If you were not from here and drove through this town, there was no reason to stop,” says Kitchen.

Residents often just “threw up their hands,” says Sharon Mack, executive director of the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

“When I first came here and went to meetings, someone would come up with an idea and people would say, ‘Oh, that won’t work here,’” Mack says.

But there was a marshalling of forces that began occurring about two years ago. From the municipal perspective, Kitchen recalls, “It was the town government saying, ‘You know what? This is not going to be a ‘fix-it’ board. This is going to be a board that does things.’ It might sound simple. But that was a sea change of attitude.”

Since then, improvement projects have ranged from sewer upgrades to airport investments, downtown revitalization and flood mitigation plans and a Join Us on Main Street campaign with businesses and organizations. A new revitalization Tax Increment Financing district for the downtown-riverfront area seeks to drive development.

“We keep looking for ways to improve, seeing how we can work with businesses to make them realize there are opportunities for investment,” says Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien. She cites Machias Savings as an example. “They’re adding jobs every year. That’s extremely helpful in keeping some of the youth here when they get out of college: They’ve got to have a place to work.”

Machias has a lot going on, she adds.

“It’s a beautiful area and land prices are still extremely affordable compared with most of the East Coast,” she says. “You can still get one to two acres on the coast for $100,000 with a couple hundred feet of ocean frontage.”

The outdoor recreation economy is active and growing. At Machias River Inn, Manager Shelley Roberts says tourism has picked up considerably over the last decade, driven by things like better marketing of the Bold Coast region and establishment of the 87-mile multi-use Down East Sunrise Trail, plus regional attractions like puffin tours and Campobello Island, which have broad renown.

Create opportunities

With assets like the University of Maine at Machias, the airport, the Route 1 corridor and Down East Community Hospital, key components of the economy here are education, health care, retail, professional and business services and financial activities.

Barker notes some traditional industries are no longer the same. That blueberry raking as a kid?

“Some generational farms are no longer there,” he says. “In the old days, you’d have a bus full of kids going to rake blueberries. Now most is mechanically harvested.”

Lobster fishing remains strong.

“A lot of children are still able to become part of that,” says Barker.

Barker and others say youth outmigration appears to be slowing.

New business owners Gina and Harry Finn and Caissie and Isaiah Roberts are examples. They partnered to buy the former Machias Hardware Co., at 25 Main St., and in July opened Machias River General and Sew Fetch Dog Collars.

Ranging in age from their late 20s to early 30s, they’re connected to Washington County in various ways, ultimately settling in Machias as a close-knit community.

“It’s nice to see the positive changes,” says Gina Finn. “I think people see there are more job opportunities. Like here, where we were able to hire two employees.”

Photo / Leslie Bowman
Gina Finn (pictured) and Caissie Roberts, along with their husbands, bought a vintage building on Main Street and turned it into Machias River General. The couples are returnees, drawn to the community for its close-knit feel and optimistic vibe.

Like Barker at a young age, they have diverse income streams. Gina also teaches. They rent out upper-story units. The Finns with another partner bought and renovated an apartment building. Plus, providers like fishermen and artisans benefit from the store as an additional marketplace. And other new businesses are opening nearby, like a yarn shop and a skateboard shop.

“I think we’re starting to see a real movement where our age group is starting to come back home or starting to stay and finding a niche,” says Gina. “You have to be creative in how you support your family. There’s a lot of trades available, but you have to look for it.”

The owner of that skateboard shop, Aaron Ackley, 29, is a returnee. He recalls a news story about young adults leaving Maine.

“I remember that hitting me,” says Ackley, who owns Bad Little Boards. “Rather than moving away, I wanted to create something here to do for myself and my peers.”

Mack and others credit Barker and Machias Savings for helping to drive similar activity.

“People started paying attention,” says Mack. “Suddenly people were looking at empty buildings as potential investments for the future. Suddenly we saw new businesses starting. Many of the new investors are young couples with children.”

More than half a dozen businesses have cropped up in the past two years, she says.

“Suddenly they’ve got a part-timer, then they’ve got a full-timer, then they’ve got a full-timer and a part-timer,” Mack says. “It’s not fireworks. It’s very quiet. But it’s definitely growth.”

Photos / Courtesy of Jacob van de Sande
Maine Coast Heritage Trust bought the rundown Machias River Redemption Center at 4 Main St., earlier this year, and donated it to the town for demolition, then construction of green space. The project conformed with the town’s multi-year waterfront resilience plan to mitigate rising sea levels, via seawall and other improvements along the downtown waterfront. The building became inundated by storm surge last winter, with water lapping against the building and propane tanks floating into the yard, says MCHT Land Protection Project Manager Jacob van de Sande.

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