The Kennebec River in Solon, Maine – part of a Historic route to Canada and a National Scenic Byway. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Maine awards $4.9 million in grants for riverfront improvements

By Ramona du Houx

February 11th, 2009

What makes Maine so special? Many would say it’s the people, the amazing natural settings, and peaceful community atmosphere. That quality of life is making the state a mecca for people to relocate in.

Many residents already are aware of Maine’s magic, but many towns for decades in the past have sorely lacked resources to revitalize their rivers. Until Senator Ed Muskie highlighted the plight of this unique natural resource for the nation and authored the Clean Water Act, some of Maine’s rivers were used to pour industrial waste into. Before then, loggers navigated thousands of logs downstream for a forest-products industry, and ice was harvested. Before then, the rivers were the routes for travelers and goods connecting communities across the state.

The Indian canoes of the past are the Old Town canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats of the present. Now, the rivers are returning to be areas to dream about, areas where artisans, families, and people wishing to leave the burdensome rat race behind can enjoy. Many of them are reconnecting communities with river walks and trails.

In December some of those towns got a boost. Close to five million dollars in grants were awarded to communities across Maine to enhance their riverfronts.


The waterfront in Richmond, Maine that was improved with state grants. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“The grant awards promote and continue the ecological recovery of Maine’s rivers, while revitalizing riverfront communities,” said Governor John Baldacci, before he congratulated the recipients of the $4.9 million grants approved for by a voter bond referendum in 2007. “The projects will help to improve the quality of place along the more than 30,000 miles of rivers in Maine, where more than half of our population lives in riverfront communities. Our rivers are the lifeblood of Maine. They have always been vital to the state’s economic development and are today more than ever.”

“Where we once turned our backs on them, we now see them as a resource and an asset,” said Gardiner Mayor Andrew MacLean, whose town will share a $495,000 grant with Augusta for trails, public access, and habitat improvements along the Kennebec River.

The approval process was merit based, and every community applicant had to raise $2 in local funds or outside funding for every $1 in bond money. The $4.9 million will in fact leverage more than $41.7 million in matching dollars.


“All the applicants were impressive,” said State Planning Office (SPO) Director Martha Freeman. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Persevering Maine’s natural beauty today so future generations can enjoy it tomorrow could be the motto of the SPO. “It was a great collaborative effort with different state agencies working together and with local communities working with us. Investing in these types of indigenous resources in Maine will improve our quality of place, will see our economy prosper and will maintain the kind of state we want to live in, and more tourists, retirees, and highly skilled workers will find Maine more attractive. The rivers in Maine run through many communities; they have no county lines, and they have shown us we all can work together to make the state a better place for all of us.”

The Department of Conservation (DOC) was one of the partners that helped choose the best applicants. “Our rivers provide exceptional recreational opportunities; we’re dedicated to them as we are dedicated to the people of the state of Maine,” said DOC Commissioner Pat McGowan. “These grants are where growth in the state makes a difference for generations to come.”

Riverfront Bonds can be used for a wide variety of projects, including rehabilitation of rundown or abandoned buildings, restoration and improvement of habitat for fish and wildlife, or creation of parks, trails, or other recreational amenities. The projects in these 14 towns reflect the character of their riverfront communities.

“Economic development does not occur before community development; this is all about community development,” said Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson.

Out of the fourteen communities receiving the money, more than seven towns will use the funds for trails, furthering a state goal of creating an interstate trail system throughout Maine.

A total of $652,000 was awarded to five Aroostook County communities to create trails, provide public access, and complete riverfront projects. “It’s been a tradition to have public access to the river for centuries, be it to collect fiddleheads or fish. This grant will ensure this for future generations. The St. John River is a part of our heritage and has been used for centuries. It used to be a communications route between Quebec City and Halifax. It can be again,” said Dave Wiley of the town of Grand Isle. Towns participating in what will be a $2.5 million project are Grand Isle, Fort Kent, Madawaska, Frenchville, and Van Buren. “We had to be a part of this.”

The projects funded were diverse in their scope, and the implementation of the grants will allow communities to be successful in a myriad of ways.

A large contingent from Machias led by Chubba, as the gentleman likes to be referred to, were able to obtain a grant to help understand the habitats of Downeast salmon. “It’s a great boost; it will help us research our salmon populations with the University of Maine,” he said. The grant will also redevelop an old mill and hatchery.


The Kennebec River in Solon, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

In Thomaston, the state prison closed six years ago, and a developer bought the building and surrounding land. “This project illustrates how well economic development between private and public partnerships can work. We have plans for a multiuse facility, with parklands and a river walkway,” said developer Kevin Bancour.

The town of Milo was devastated by fire last October, and the governor’s administration went into action helping out the town. Town manager Jeff Gahagan thanked the governor at the press conference. “The community is very excited about moving forward. This is an important milestone in helping us to rebuild. These two new parks will help us build a new front door to Milo,” he said.

John Lameir, city manager, stood together with the Saco delegation to announce what the funds will be used for. “This project brings towns together. Together we are rebuilding walking spaces all the way along the river, with a park,” he said.


Richmond docks that were built with a Maine grant, photo by Ramona du Houx


With ecotourism on the rise around the globe, many communities will be able to tap into this market. Many of these recipients also have received funding from Community Development grants to help their downtowns get facelifts, attracting businesses and enhancing the creative economy.

Bangor, Skowhegan, Richmond, Biddeford, and others are all turning their sights to their rivers and their downtowns to turn their economies around. They are in the midst of a renaissance, and the Riverfront Bond program is helping to make it happen.

“These grants will bring regrowth, revitalization, and regeneration to riverside communities across the state; it’s important work and means a lot to Maine. I’d like to see more of these kinds of grants in the future,” concluded the governor. “Our quality of life means so much for our economic future.”

The state had $8.3 million in requests for the Riverfront Bond.

Research by the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place confirmed that Maine’s quality of place is the state’s principal advantage in securing and enhancing the prosperity of the people of Maine in the global economy. The state’s character is embodied in its town’s and the rivers that run through them. These communities make Maine unique and desirable.

The total awards:

  • Bangor — $675,000 to develop a 12-acre park along the waterfront.
  • East Machias — $215,500 to redevelop an old mill and hatchery.
  • Five Aroostook County communities — $652,000 to create trails, provide public access.
  • Skowhegan — $110,000 for a riverside park featuring trails.
  • Biddeford — $500,000 for a river walk, dam, and mill redevelopment.
  • Houlton — $22,600 for trails and public access.
  • Orono — $96,400 for a river park, trails, and public access.
  • Pittsfield — $32,200 for trails, public access.
  • Richmond — $333,000 for a riverfront park and public access.
  • Saco — $675,000 to redevelop a mill and a riverfront park.
  • Sanford — $675,000 to redevelop a mill and a riverfront park.
  • Thomaston — $221,000 to redevelop Maine state prison, a river park, and trails.