Meet Searsport candidates for selectman

By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 01, 2018
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez The town of Searsport will choose two selectmen in the town election Tuesday, March 6. The annual town meeting is Saturday, March 10.

Searsport — Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect Linda Payson's service as past president of West Bay Rotary Club in Camden.

The town will need to fill two seats on its Board of Selectmen this year: Selectman Aaron Fethke is not seeking re-election and Doug Norman’s most recent three-year term as selectman is up. Elections will take place Tuesday, March 6, at the Public Safety Building.

Four candidates are running for the two open positions. They are, in alphabetical order, Tom Hodgkins, Arthur “A.J.” Koch Jr., Doug Norman and Linda Payson.

Hodgkins has lived in Searsport for more than eight years. He works at Tozier’s Market and previously worked 15 years at Belfast's Hannaford. Koch has served the town of Searsport in many different capacities over the years. Norman, the incumbent, has been a Searsport selectman for nine years. Payson grew up in Searsport. She graduated in 1979, has been an auctioneer and employed 14 people, and is a past president of West Bay Rotary Club of Camden.

During a forum Feb. 24, candidates were asked how best to attract business to the downtown area. Hodgkins said advertising and infrastructure repair is important, as well as being open to change. He said he is not opposed to a big-box store opening in the area. Koch suggested voters should “get out of the way” of business development. He said the existing railway needs work to be viable but could attract different businesses. Norman said an environment people want to be in is crucial to attracting business and cited new lighting as an asset. Payson said she would work with the economic development director, look at parking issues, and offer financial incentives and tax assistance.

All the candidates agree Searsport needs its own police department and that better wages would be an incentive for people to stay. All the candidates also said they supported the work being done by Friends of Sears Island.

Candidates offered different suggestions for keeping Searsport's water clean. Payson said residents should support the efforts of Friends of Sears Island and the shellfish warden. Additionally, the town should have the water checked regularly for contamination. Hodgkins said the shoreline should be aesthetically pleasing and businesses should “follow the rules and deal with it as it comes up.”

Koch said the environmental issues that have happened in the past began years before, when regulations weren’t as strict or when the Department of Environmental Protection did not exist. Because of the location at the mouth of the Penobscot River, all pollution ends up in Searsport, he said. Norman said more officials are needed to monitor and enforce pollution rules. He also supports upgrades to the waste water plant.

Some residents expressed concern about planned work on Route 1 during the critical tourist season from May to October and asked how the candidates would support businesses in the area during construction.

Hodgkins said, “I don’t believe tearing up the roads will be that big of a hardship.” He endorsed night work and urged residents and business owners to be patient. Koch said he anticipates the situation will be similar to Thomaston's, where some businesses did close, but said, “We’re a very tough town.” He said if residents support night work, he, too, would do so. Norman said he doesn’t think the project will take long to complete, so it shouldn’t put people out of business. Payson said she hopes it won’t cause businesses to close but she urged business owners to “hang tight” and said night work would be an excellent idea.

Regarding infrastructure improvements, the candidates offered a variety of suggestions. Koch said the railway is in desperate need of upgrades. He also supports harbor dredging, shipping channel maintenance and Route 1 repair. Norman said most important to him are storm sewers, upgrading the waste water system and dredging. He said he would like to see Bangor Gas Co. put in gas lines during the Route 1 construction, which would ultimately save the town money. Payson agreed with storm sewers and waste water plant upgrades to prepare for the future. Hodgkins responded, “Most of it, besides waste water, is cosmetic.”

Each candidate was asked if the role of a selectman should be proactive or reactive during the next five years. Norman said downtown renovation is a future thing that's not reactive at all. Payson, Hodgkins and Koch agreed that it should be a combination of both that allows planning for the future and dealing with day-to-day concerns.

Hodgkins, Norman and Payson all said they don’t think Searsport has an image problem when it comes to attracting business. Norman said he feels the Maine Ocean School will be “an economic engine for Searsport.” Koch said the idea of being anti-big business is a deterrent to attracting business. Historically anything big gets run out, he said.

On retaining younger people, Koch pointed to the magnet school as a draw and said he hopes students might stay after graduation based on available jobs of interest to them. Norman said jobs are a reason for young people to stay in town but officials also need to maintain businesses that are already here. By helping them grow, more jobs will follow, Norman said.

With recent announcements of two salmon farming projects in the area, Hodgkins said Searsport should get its foot in the door with the businesses for the potential jobs and affordable housing.

Following completion of downtown projects, Norman, Payson and Hodgkins all said they would like to see the Maine Ocean School grow. Koch said he would like to see more promotion.

Waterfront development around Sprague and Sears Island has been a bone of contention among residents for years. Payson and Koch agreed if there needs to be development, it should be environmentally friendly and that Sprague's docks need to be monitored. Norman said development would “need to be cohesive” with what is already established. He said dredging and Maine Ocean School development fit the mold. Hodgkins did not respond.

Residents questioned the role of the part-time economic development director, asking what he's done to attract business. Each candidate highlighted different efforts, including gathering information, participating in the downtown revitalization study process, promoting Searsport with ads and brochures and welcoming new businesses to town.

Koch said his first priority, if elected, is to bring a new perspective to the board and keep the same momentum. Norman said he hopes to keep taxes down and to keep the town safe by supporting police, fire and ambulance services. Payson said safety would be her No. 1 priority. Hodgkins said he would talk to people and get their opinions; listen to the town.

Hodgkins and Payson were targeted as the candidates with the least budgeting and municipal experience.  Hodgkins agreed but said he has run charities, organized parades and that he is frugal. Payson said she was married to a selectman and ran her own business, though she admitted she does not have much municipal experience.

To recruit volunteers, Hodgkins suggested students could help with town activities like Fling into Fall or planting flower boxes. Koch noted volunteer fire departments have the same problems finding volunteers because young people lack interest and lack civic responsibility. Norman said he has tried to recruit people personally but younger people are working to pay bills and take care of their kids. Payson said get kids more exposure and perhaps start a blog to get the word out.

Candidates were asked how they might strengthen and promote Penobscot Marine Museum. Hodgkins said the town needs to advertise more programs. He suggested starting with promoting programs at schools. Koch said the museum is taken for granted. Norman said he would host a meeting and invite the board of directors from the museum. The problem is on both sides, he said; there's a “non-relationship” between the museum and the town. Payson said events like Maritime Heritage Days and the town's upcoming 175th anniversary are chances for collaboration with the museum. She suggested a selectman be on the museum's board of directors.

For those interested in establishing a home-based business in Searsport, Hodgkins said it's important to highlight what the town offers, such as affordable housing. Koch said expanding high-speed internet access would help and agreed the town has affordable homes. Norman also agreed with expanding high-speed internet and touted the future benefits of the Ocean School. Payson said “word of mouth” is the best advertising.

 

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