ROCKPORT — A busy corner on Route 1 is poised for a major transformation, as ideas percolate among the landowners who have purchased key properties at the south end of Rockport Village known as Hoboken. Where once was a schoolhouse (built just after the Civil War), which then became a garden center with greenhouses, may next be an agricultural enterprise and home to a farmer’s market.
Perhaps a small workforce housing development, with walking trails and gardens, and a childcare center for infants and toddlers.
And, if the community warms up, and a like-minded developer purchases the former Fuller Chevrolet dealership, and the town takes action with its former Rockport Elementary School parcel on West Street, the new landowners are even dreaming about connecting trails to the RES ballfields, as well as to the Harkness Preserve, which fronts the harbor, and backs up against the former car lot.
The development is in the formative stages, but the principals involved are not rookies in moving Midcoast projects forward. And they are now talking to the Rockport Select Board about their plans.
Martha White, Taylor Allen, and Marianne and Stuart Smith are old friends. They brought up their children in the same community, and have welcomed grandchildren into their lives about the same time. Allen and Stuart Smith were instrumental in getting the Camden Hills Regional High School built on Route 90, in 1999, and they are major landowners and businessmen in Rockport.
Marianne Smith is a designer, and their son, Tyler, is integral to the family’s development business; he led the 2015 renovations of 16 Bay View Hotel in Camden.
Tyler’s father, Stuart, and Marianne established the Lord Camden Inn in downtown Camden in the 1980s, built the Grand Harbor Inn on Camden Harbor, they have real estate on Rockland Harbor, and they now own prime real estate on Central Street in Rockport.
The three Smiths are now designing a proposed new hotel for one of those Central Street lots, and are also considering a new subdivision on land they acquired on the corner of routes 90 and 1, near Rockport’s Mistic Ave. neighborhood, and perhaps accessed from Cross Street. (Tyler Smith said Jan. 25 that plans for that possible larger-lot subdivision are a year or more off, as they concentrate on Central Street and Hoboken).
Martha White is a writer and educator, who has a special interest in early childhood development, especially the infant years. Her husband, Taylor Allen, owns Rockport Marine, on the harbor, which employs approximately 50 year-round, full-time artisans, carpenters and engineers, who build and renovate boats, and run a boatyard.
But of those Rockport Marine employees, just a handful live nearby. Most live inland, where land and homes are cheaper. One commutes from Waterville.
That is the reason White and Allen pursued purchasing the 3.6-acre lot that abuts the former Hoboken Gardens garden center. They envision building workforce housing there on the undeveloped patch of woods, so that young families, who work at the local boatyards, or fish, or work at the various schools in the area, the hospital, or at the many small businesses, have a home that is not a long commute from their jobs.
Allen and White began talking with the Smiths, who were negotiating last fall with the Farley family to buy Hoboken Gardens, and were themselves dreaming about the future of two parcels on which an historic schoolhouse sits, as well as functioning greenhouses.
The lay of the land
The three parcels the landowners want to develop all directly abutting Route 1, and all are serviced, or can be serviced, by public water and sewer.
Allen and White purchased the 3.6-acre lot, assessed at $111,960, from Boyd Building Co. in September. It is primarily wooded.
Next door is a 1.4-acre lot, with a parking lot on it, and is assessed at $85,000. The Smiths purchased that, as well as the adjacent lot on which the old Hoboken schoolhouse sits, and which Hoboken Gardens used for retail and office space. (The Hoboken Gardens business has since relocated to Flowers by Hoboken, at 15 Tillson Ave., in Rockland)
That property is is 4.4 acres in size, and is assessed at $513,100.
“Rockport has become a retirement community,” said Taylor.
Not only a demographically older town, the population is shrinking. According to the Maine Office of Policy and Management, in 2004, the population was 3,594. Ten years later, in 2014, it was 3,370. The state is projecting Rockport’s population will hover around 3,400 by 2034.
According to the Maine State Housing Authority, the 2015 median home price in Rockport was $266,250. And, according to the housing authority, the median income required to afford that median priced home in Rockport was $73,128, or $35.16 per hour.
But the median income in Rockport that year was $59,258.
Using the state’s index, Rockport was determined to be “generally unaffordable,” meaning the “household earning area median income could not cover the payment on a median priced home (30 year mortgage, taxes and insurance) using no more than 28 percent of gross income.”
Not only has Rockport’s housing stock gotten pricier, like that of Camden, St. George and South Thomaston — all waterfront towns — more of the properties have been acquired by out-of-state residents as second homes.
“Last night I left work, and noticed that the entire west side of the harbor was dark,” said Allen.
He is convinced that Rockport can change direction.
“We need to keep young people here,” he said.
Rockport’s progression from a smoky, industrial town to a coastal community with expensive waterfront homes evolved over a century. The harbor, where four-masted ships were once under construction, is far more demure, but properties are expensive.
Allen wants to see a livelier town, with a diverse population, and plenty of children. His family has owned Rockport Marine since the 1960s and he has a civic interest in supporting a healthy community.
“That’s the only reason we are in it,” he said.
On that 3.6-acre Hoboken lot, he and White also want to establish a daycare center, which “is a critical need in this area,” said Allen.
There are plenty of opportunities in the area for children age three, four and five, said White. The gap is infant care, she said. Unlike when she was raising her babies, in the 1980s and early 1990s, there were plenty of babysitters. Not anymore, she said. And, mothers and fathers are often commuting long distances to work — her own daughter-in-law drives to Orono daily, and she is fortunate enough to have grandparents in the area to help watch the babies.
What does the Select Board think?
Allen and White wrote to the Rockport Select Board, in a letter dated Jan. 16: “We are writing to apprise you of our thoughts for a section of Rt. 1 from West St. running south to Pascal Ave. and possibly to include the old Fuller car dealership. We have acquired the Hoboken Garden sites and an undeveloped 3.6 acre (former Boyd) parcel. We are aware that the disposition of the RES site is still up in the air.
“We acquired these properties because we were concerned that these parcels could be attractive to out-of-state developers with plans not in keeping with our vision of how Rockport could better develop. We believe a rare opportunity is here for a town to determine the manner in which a significant portion of the town is developed and utilized for decades to come.
“We have given the matter some thought and have our ideas about how those developments could occur.
“Our main focus is to encourage uses that directly impact the ability of young families to live and work in town. Following are some uses for this Route 1 corridor that seem good to us. There are undoubtedly many more and we welcome other thoughts.
- Workforce housing that remains affordable for families just starting out
- Infant/toddler childcare
- Senior and/or senior-day-care activities
- Walkways that connect the village center walking paths to the ball fields and Harkness Preserve
- Family-oriented health care and/or walk-in health clinic
- Green houses/farmer's market center/food co-op or community gardening opportunities
- Keeping the ball fields at the RES site as such
“There are a number of challenges:
- Buy-in from the community
- What happens to RES?
- What happens to the old Fuller dealership property?
“Some questions for the Select Board:
- How involved with this decision making do you wish to be?
- Would you consider allowing (selling?) the RES site to be part of this plan?
- Does our general thinking meet with your approval?
The Select Board has not yet publicly discussed Allen’s letter.
Meanwhile, the Smiths have their own visions for their two newly acquired properties. Tyler Smith sketched out the general proposals for the former garden center. He said : “Early this summer a group of Rockport residents and business owners informally met to review and discuss the vision of the Rockport section of the Route 1 corridor.
“This meeting took place because of the significant number of commercial properties that were currently for sale in this area. The group was concerned about what might move into these prime locations and how that would visually affect the entrance to the town of Rockport.
“We purchased the old Hoboken school house and surrounding property from the Farleys as a result of that discussion. We plan to maintain the site’s horticultural roots, as well as provide other Maine made and natural products and services.
“Currently we are working with a local farm to start operating out of the large greenhouses as well as a yet to be built farm stand. They will be selling small potted plants in the spring and hydroponically grown fresh herbs and greens from their retail space and to local restaurants year round.
“The Hoboken schoolhouse will remain a retail storefront with private offices on the second floor and most importantly the ice cream stand will reopen!
“In addition, we have also been actively working with the Camden Farmers Market to relocate its biweekly market to this site. We see their addition as a great asset to the immediate Rockport community within walking/biking distance, those commuting by the site daily, as well as the tourist traffic that slowly streams up Route 1 every summer. The group will be meeting later this month to decide the best location for their market to relocate to.”
According to Tyler Smith, they are waiting to hear from the Camden Farmers Market board of directors whether that organization is interested in moving its regular seasonal market from Camden, and possibly the old Tannery property in Millville, over to Rockport.
Attempts to reach Farmers Market for this article have yet to successful.
But the Smiths are also talking with Union farmers about moving year-round grow operations to the greenhouses, to cultivate greens and and other crops.
For Taylor Allen, he’s optimistic about the possibilities of the various projects. He and Stuart Smith helped complete one major community development, the new high school, and he believes they have a working relationship in which their skills and talents compliments each other.
There are no architectural or engineering sketches, yet. First, Allen wants to gauge the community’s response to the idea.
As he works in the back of the shop on his own personal longterm project, the complete restoration of a 71-foot sardine carrier, the William Underwood, he is sanguine about the future of Rockport, its local economy, and the prospects of bringing more younger families back to the town, and in particular, Rockport Village.
The Village used to be bigger than it is now, and Hoboken, where the schoolhouse once educated children, is a focal point for a restoration of civic vitality.
“It would be nice if we could have people both live and work in town,” Allen said. “It seems worthwhile, if we can pull it off.”
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