Hope and Despair, the tiny twin islands perched near the mouth of Little Kennebec Bay, could serve as an allegory for Washington County. Beleaguered by boom and bust since the demise of the canning factories that used to line the coast, the once-thriving region has nearly drowned beneath unfulfilled plans and promises.
The county persists as one of the poorest in the state, with a 12 percent poverty rate and a per capita income of roughly $26,000, according to the most recent U.S. census data. But thanks to a surge of newcomers and an expanding housing market, the Down East tide might finally be turning. Some evidence, they say, can be found in two businesses overlooking both sides of Little Kennebec Bay, just beyond Hope and Despair.
Schoppee Farms and West Branch Farms are two pandemic-era Machias businesses started by families that decided to invest their time, passions and money in Washington County.
On the east side of the bay, the historic Schoppee dairy farm lay fallow for 60 years until a cadre of ninth-generation family members returned home in 2019 to restart the farm as a hemp growing and cannabis venture. Ben, Allison, Peter and Matt Edwards are steadily growing the business, with eight employees and upwards of 100 during a robust harvest season.
Ben Edwards, the managing partner, said they’re diversifying and expanding, with elderberry and other herbal medicinal products, as well as adult-use cannabis. Although thriving now, Edwards said he and his family worried at the start whether the business could succeed in Washington County.
“It was a real concern when we decided to come back,” Edwards said. “But some truly exciting things have happened in the last few years. A lot of farms and businesses have started or restarted, and have really started to take off. I think there’s some real momentum.”
West of Schoppee Farm, over the blue ribbon of water that separates them, West Branch Farm sits on the rolling hills of a former wild blueberry barren, now home to Coffee & Crisp Café, an organic farm-to-table eatery that opened in mid-October. Owners Chris and Sue Meroff, and their adult son, Josh (who oversees operations as a new, year-round resident) are longtime Maine vacationers from Texas, who plan to produce much more than a charming country café.
With 10 employees and six more planned for next spring, West Branch has two farms, one for produce, berries and an apple orchard; and another down the road for livestock. It’s all to supply organic food for the café and farmers market, as well as a planned Inn and Tavern, a 1930s replica chicken barn wedding venue, and guest cabins. Chris Meroff said their established business ventures in Texas gave them enough capital to take a risk with West Branch Farms.
“We don’t want to be ignorant of what could go wrong, but we don’t want to let that get in the way of creating a real economy here,” Chris Meroff said. “And that’s really what these areas need, the fullness of an economy, with good-paying, year-round jobs.”
Around the county, from the border city of Calais down to Steuben, about 40 miles from Bar Harbor, the signs of a pandemic surge are everywhere: New businesses are opening, and real estate sales and prices are going up. The 2020 census showed a drop of 1,761 residents from 2010, but that snapshot was taken a year too early, some say.
“The census doesn’t really tell the story on the ground,” said Washington County Commissioner and Port Authority Director Christopher Gardner. “For the county that supposedly lost all its population, find me the vacant houses because there aren’t any. We’re seeing property valuations skyrocket in Washington County.”
That’s certainly true in Milbridge, a 24-square-mile town situated near the base of the county on Narraguagus Bay, with an official population of 1,358. Lewis Pinkham, the town manager and police chief, said he’s not sure what’s attracting people to Milbridge but knows they’re coming — and paying top dollar.
“We’ve had probably 20 new homes built since COVID, hands down — and a lot of properties sold that were vacant,” Pinkham said. “And they’re paying twice as much as they should have for stuff. Our town valuation went up $36 million last year and it looks like it’s going up another $25 million this year.”
Washington County home sales in the three-month period from July through September was nearly 38 percent higher than during the same period last year, according to the Maine Association of Realtors. The median sales price also grew to $220,000 from $160,000 only a year ago. Karen Eldridge, a realtor selling properties in Washington County for 17 years, said the reports echo the huge jump she’s seen with her sales.
“Washington County prices have started to compare almost exactly with Penobscot County prices,” Eldridge said. “That’s something I’ve never seen as long as I’ve lived here.”
Realtor Debbie Holmes, based in Lubec, said her sale prices are also “crazy high.” She cited one waterfront home she’s sold twice: in 2016 for $285,000, then this year for $650,000.
Realtors and officials admit some sales are seasonal homes and conversions for vacation rentals. But according to census numbers crunched by Helen Hemminger, a research associate for the Maine Children’s Alliance, even though deaths exceeded births in Washington County, the adult population grew in 2021 by 59. And that data is already obsolete. Realtors say even rising interest rates haven’t cooled the housing market much. They say the only thing slowing sales is not enough supply to meet demand: The housing stock countywide is nearly depleted and new construction is cost prohibitive at $300 per square foot, if you can find a builder with less than a two-year wait list.
Those prices inevitably make the housing costs nearly unaffordable for longtime locals as people trickle in from out of state — often bringing a taste for new stores and restaurants, and the disposable income to pay for them.
Michael Siano is a chiropractor who moved to East Machias from Atlanta in 2020 with his wife Martha and set up practice. After watching the population explode in Atlanta, Siano said they decided it was time to get out.
“We looked at each other and said, we could go anywhere we want. We just knew we wanted something affordable and to be near the ocean,” he said. “So we started working our way up the coast and put the brakes on before we were out of the country,” he chuckled.
Los Angeles composer and pianist Danny Holt, who is originally from the Northeast, said he had enough of the hectic west coast lifestyle and escalating temperatures. So in early October, he came to see what Maine had to offer and ended up putting an offer on the first house he saw, up the road from the Sianos.
“What really did it for me was walking on that path through the field, seeing wild blueberries, two big mature apple trees, and then going down in the woods and standing on the edge of the river,” Holt said. “I had a really powerful emotional reaction and I actually started crying.”
The Down East landscape is a powerful draw, especially to out-of-state urbanites and suburbanites fleeing relatively congested areas. Homesteaders Kelly Dutra, her husband Chris, and 13-year-old son moved to Jonesboro from Cape Cod in June after falling in love with the area last summer visiting friends. Kelly Dutra said they tried to create the homestead life back on Cape Cod but had only a quarter of an acre and neighbors on all three sides.
“There also isn’t an appreciation for farm fresh items back home like there is here in Maine. We also love the outdoors, but you can only walk the same trails in a small area so many times before it becomes boring,” Dutra said. “Here there are so many different places to explore.”
Municipal officials and realtors say people seem to be migrating to the county for a variety of reasons, including planned and new retirements; transferring for a new job; to be near family; and because they can work remotely. Thanks in part to federal and state grants, high-speed broadband is expanding rapidly even in the most rural parts of the county.
Access to reliable internet was a plus for 55-year-old Kimberly Collins, who moved from the Washington, D.C., area two years ago to be near her son and granddaughter in Calais. Without amenities and services nearby to which she was accustomed, Collins said the first year was still rough. But by the second year, Collins decided to sell her prized motorcycle to open a business downtown, Boujee Bouj Skincare & Waxing, one of the 18 new pandemic-era businesses in Calais.
Craig Bruce and his husband Michael Novack, transplants from Windsor, Ontario, also opened a business in downtown Calais earlier this year, the White Birch Exchange, a garden décor and gift store with online sales. The couple was attracted to the cross-border community, living in New Brunswick and coming to the store each day to work.
Perhaps more than any place in the county, Calais, with an estimated population of roughly 3,000, has benefited from the influx of new people, not only from outside the state but within the county. Mayor Billy Howard said many new residents move in from more rural towns like Alexander because they want closer access to services and, according to Howard, are attracted to Calais’ consistently lower taxes.
Nearly half of the Washington County schools report plummeting enrollments — as much as 60 percent lower — because the new residents are often without school-age children, and are often middle-aged or older. But in Calais, Howard said the city needs to expand its elementary school because of an enrollment increase.
Others also feel the growing pains and are ramping up to meet the increased need. Machias-based Downeast Community Hospital last year rescued Calais Hospital out of bankruptcy, and has added new providers and clinics in Machias. Eastport Health Center is also expanding in Machias, with a bigger, new facility and an added provider. Machias Savings Bank, headquartered in Machias, also has invested heavily in the county’s growth, with $30 million in loans last year countywide, a new banking services facility downtown, and a $250,000 donation for the new MaineStreet Business Building, an entrepreneurial incubator headed up by the Sunrise Economic Council.
Still, many worry that the county might not be able to keep up with the sudden surge, with infrastructure and services, or enough places for people to live; and they wonder who might be lost in the wake in this still mostly poor region. Gardner, the county commissioner, also owns 10 apartment units and said house sales and rents are both on the rise — in many places rents are double what they were two years ago.
“It’s an interesting dilemma that we find ourselves in,” said Gardner. “The attractiveness of our areas is a great thing, right? But it’s annihilating our housing stock. We welcome people. We want them to come. In the meantime, when they show up, we hope we can find them a place to live.”
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