CUNDY’S HARBOR — It had long been expected. But when the “For Sale” sign went up on Holbrook’s Lobster & Seafood Grill in 2005, it was a gut-wrench for both life-long residents and newly settled retirees to Cundy’s Harbor.
All they could foresee were condos replacing the worn buildings that had been the center of economic and social life in this beautiful, bustling village on the New Meadows River. An ugly look ahead.
Lobstermen grumbled but had little choice but to keep hauling traps. However, harbor women and a retired man or two had time to pull up chairs to Sue Hawkes’ kitchen table. The improbable question before them: Can this tiny town possibly raise enough money to buy the property, renovate and preserve it? Can we keep one of Maine’s oldest fishing villages intact?
Nine years and a national economic crisis later the answer is—incredibly enough—a resounding “yes.”
A thriving Holbrook Community Foundation has delivered what started as an impossible dream. Created in 2005 at the proverbial kitchen table to buy and manage the Holbrook working waterfront site, the foundation represents one of Maine’s most successful public-private preservation efforts.
The sailing was rarely downhill but momentum built and there were no knock-downs. Among the high points was pulling down the old wharf with a couple of revved-up lobster boats, which provided both entertainment for onlookers and satisfaction for participants.
Today, three of the once-nervous “kitchen table” founders—Sue Hawkes, Rachel Miller and Greg Barmore—now sit more comfortably on HCF’s 16-member board—a model of focused, sustained stewardship.
Powered by an obviously worthwhile goal, fund-raising proved surprisingly successful—a blend of 550 private donors, contributions sought by savvy board members from two foundations, and federal, state and municipal government grants
In all, $1.9 million was raised to buy, renovate and improve the unique, mixed-use complex: a commercial wharf and snack bar, a general store, an 1840 house with rental apartments and art gallery, several moorings, a community dock, a pump-out float and three marine businesses.
Those tired of glass-half-empty economic news might note that HCF made an extra mortgage payment of $50,000 last year.
Board members are understandably upbeat about having successfully completed the foundation’s first-phase objectives—purchase, renovation, modernization and profitable operation of the Holbrook’s complex.
By last fall, they could report:
Last year, the reverse osmosis drinking water system was rebuilt. A community dock, several moorings and a boat-sewage pump-out float—financed with a state grant—were operated and maintained. The store’s exterior got some paint.
Structurally renewed, the village’s center—often visited by the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a longtime summer resident—seems assured of a much longer life.
With the restoration phase now complete, foundation directors are focused on creating a role for Holbrook’s in giving back to the community.
The lobster crate races on Cundy’s Harbor Day and the Labor Day Breakfast, both sponsored by HCF, are already community institutions. Board members are now reaching out on the education front.
Last year the foundation made a major contribution to the Fishing Families for Harpswell scholarship program. It began a partnership with the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust to support a program of field trips for the Harpswell Community School and Harpswell Coastal Academy on experiential learning programs at the wharf and elsewhere.
One outreach program offered by the foundation has yet to have any takers—a situation that seems unlikely to last for long. Any fisherman who needs a loan to make essential equipment purchasers or repairs is now able to use HCF to collateralize a loan from a local bank.
That suggests how well conservative Maine bankers think the foundation is being run. It’s a remarkable seal of approval for what might have become only a “not-in-my-backyard” effort.