What is unfolding in Bucksport in the wake of Verso Paper’s decision to close its plant there is nothing short of tragic. Some 500 workers have lost their jobs. The town has lost its biggest taxpayer. It goes without saying that state and local officials must—and of course will—focus on helping those workers train for new jobs.

No doubt, there also will be efforts by public officials to find a buyer for the mill and restart it as a papermaking facility. Failing that, officials will try to find businesses to lease or buy all or part of the property to use in other ways.

And failing that”¦ well, that’s the problem with such hulking, sprawling industrial buildings that squat on and dominate the waterfront. Unlike a modern call center building or even a plant built to manufacture shoes, windows, guns or electronic devices, paper plants don’t lend themselves to repurposing.

With the decline in paper use—Verso’s Bucksport mill made the glossy paper used in catalogues, which are being used less by retailers because shoppers now peruse products online—reviving papermaking is unlikely there. Turning the property into a sort of business park also will be difficult because the large, open structures that housed the paper machines don’t lend themselves to being retrofit as offices.

One possibility, which admittedly would face significant regulatory hurdles and possibly local opposition, is to develop an electric generating station at the site. A spur from the Maritimes & Northeast natural gas line that crosses the state from New Brunswick was run along the Penobscot River to the paper mill several years ago. A similar gas-powered, electric-generating plant was built in Veazie upriver from Bucksport in 2000, generating a peak of 5.3 kilowatts.

Sadly, though, it’s a safe bet that the paper mill will be vacant and decaying ten years from now if action isn’t taken.

Historically, industry in Maine set up shop along rivers and on harbors because it needed access to water. In the 19th century, rivers powered mills. Waste also could be disposed of in those rivers. On the coast, industry enjoyed the access to maritime transportation (and, again, easy waste disposal).

Mills using logs as raw material, whether for lumber or paper, needed to be on rivers because until the 1970s, logs were floated down those rivers from the north woods. Bucksport’s paper mill, established there in the 1930s, is the only paper mill in Maine on the coast (one might argue that it’s at the mouth of the Penobscot River, but it certainly is within a few miles of upper Penobscot Bay).

So the question looms—would Bucksport be better off if the plant were demolished, and demolished sooner than later? There are some examples along the coast of what such bold actions have yielded. Just 20 miles or so to the west, Belfast’s waterfront was left with a sprawling concrete chicken processing plant when that business went belly up in 1988. It remained a depressing presence on the local economy until the mid-1990s, when credit card lender MBNA opened offices in the city and, out of corporate largesse, demolished the plant and built a waterfront park there.

Many people mark the revival of Belfast’s waterfront with the removal of that industrial blight.

In Rockland, FMC BioPolymer and its industrial predecessors have operated on the waterfront since 1936, producing carrageenan, a binding agent made from seaweed. Though FMC is going strong, if the owners ever closed the facility, the city would face the same challenges Bucksport now faces.

Bucksport’s most pressing problem is not the fate of those buildings. But as part of the town’s strategy for reviving its economy post-paper, it should consider nudging Verso toward demolishing and cleaning the site. Waterfront, especially protected waterfront like the mill site, will only grow in value. Uses for the site, and the jobs they would bring, are limited only by the imagination.

The sooner the town can proceed to debating what uses to allow, the sooner revival will begin.