Belfast: A Changing City

By Maria Gail | Jun 17, 2013

by Galen Stubbert

 

Belfast has been a city of newcomers since its beginning. However, my paper will be focusing on the changes brought to Belfast starting after 1960.


Ted Heroux, a Belfast native, grew up in a factory-filled working class Belfast. Chicken plants, shoe factories, as well as others, employed around half of Waldo County, and farms spotted the area. Fishermen filled the bay.  The bay hadn’t yet been over fished, and there were few regulations, so anyone who wanted to fish could. You could go down to the shore and pull lobsters straight out of the seaweed.  Heroux remembers catching fish and shellfish from the shore with his friends to sell to the general store, and using that money to go catch a 6 cent movie at the theater. The salt water swimming pool in the park used to be pumped straight out of the bay, along with chicken and fish waste from the factories. Back then there were few regulations on dumping waste. Factories would dump their waste straight into the ocean. The polluted bay kept most tourists and retirees from coming to Belfast.


In the 1970's Belfast started undergoing a cultural shift. Waldo County became the fastest growing county in the state, as college-educated young people from out of state started moving into the country to try to get back in touch with the land. Waldo County as a whole grew by 5000 people in the 70's, Belfast by only 286. “A lot of the original back-to-the-landers were not right in Belfast, they were out in Monroe, Brooks, and Montville” says Megan Pinette, president of the Belfast Historical Society. As time went by the newcomers started to trickle into the downtown. In 1971 The Grasshopper Shop, then a funky head shop, was opened by newcomers Susan and Peter Stremlau. Soon after, in 1976 the Belfast Co-op storefront opened, becoming a hub for back-to-the-landers looking to buy wholesome, healthy foods. And later, young people from art school came in, and opened up art galleries.


The 1980's brought an end to factory work in Belfast, as those jobs started to get shipped overseas. By 1987 the poultry factory was gone. When the factories left Belfast a lot of people left with them. During this time Waldo County was the poorest county in the poorest state in all of New England. With a small number of jobs in town, many people had to try to find work elsewhere. The lack of work was bad for Belfast in the short term, but it also opened up new doors. The bay, no longer polluted by factory waste, was cleaned up and the town was no longer dusted in chicken feathers from the poultry trucks. From 1980-1990 Belfast's overall population increased by 112 people. More and more people moved into Waldo County. And as time went by, some of the original back-to-the-landers got tired of working the land or had kids and/or wanted more services and moved into Belfast. Newcomers started getting into the City Council. Looking to clean up the town, they got $1.3 million in grants and loans for upgrading Main Street, sewage treatment, a breakwater, as well as new docks for big yachts and cruise ships, all making way for tourism in Belfast.


In 1995 MBNA announced it would expand in Belfast instead of Camden, bringing thousands of new job opportunities to Belfast. They opened up in 1997. When they came, they poured millions dollars into the town, donating money for the YMCA building, expanding the hospital, expanding the Belfast Free Library, tearing down the Penobscot Poultry Company chicken factory and replacing it with a park (The Commons), as well as building The Hutchinson Center, bringing the University of Maine branch to Belfast. “There were homes on Linconville Avenue that were worth maybe 50 thousand dollars that they [MBNA] were paying the people 150,000 dollars just to get the property. Then they would give them 30 days to move out and the next day they went in and tore the house down. There were some people in the community who resented that and refused to sell their property,” said Allen Weaver, ex-Belfast police chief. When MBNA came into Belfast it ended up forcing a lot of the poorer people out of the downtown. “Apartments you used to be able to rent for 300 dollars a month, suddenly you were paying 700 dollars a month because you could see the bay... it kind of gave a boom to the community, but it also forced a lot of people out of Belfast,” said Weaver. “We always knew when they were moving because they always used shopping carts from Shop 'n Save to move. So when we were on patrol at night we would see people going down the street with shopping carts. Usually at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning they'd pack everything up they owned into the shopping carts, then with their girlfriend and kids they would push the cart from one end of town to the other to their new apartments. It took a lot of problem people out of Belfast and forced them outside. Belfast crime rate went down and people felt safer in the community.”


Although the arrival of MBNA gets negative mention more often then other recent events, MBNA slid through without enormous obvious community division, probably because they were giving so much money to community improvements. In contrast, when Walmart tried to come town, there was obvious division in the community. Natives were generally more supportive to development, and the newcomers more wanted to keep the small-town feel and preserve the downtown. The newcomers strongly opposed Walmart coming, a time of obvious rivalry between natives and newcomers in Belfast, resulting in defeat of the Big Box.


In the 2010 census Maine surpassed Florida for having the oldest median age. “I bet 50% of our population now is out-of-staters.” says Heroux. A lot of older people are now coming to Belfast from out of state, looking for a nice place to spend their retirement. They buy old houses and fix them up, as well as getting active in the community, volunteering to make Belfast a more attractive town. “One of the things that the retired older people have done is come and fixed the town up,” says Heroux. This attracts even more retirees.


The new Front Street Ship Yard is bringing new wealthy clientele to Belfast. After buying out and improving Belfast Boat Yard, their new higher prices have also opened up a new market to provide service to small local boat owners. This gap is already being filled three new businesses.


Belfast has seen a lot of changes since the 1960's.  More changes are yet to come.

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