Smoldering discontent fuels Ward 5 council race

Challenger revisits concerns about lack of shopping opportunities
By Ethan Andrews | Oct 26, 2016
Photos by: Ethan Andrews Ward 5 City Councilor John Arrison, left, is being challenged in his bid for a second term by Christopher Dyer, who is seeking public office for the first time in hopes of bringing large retail stores and jobs for unskilled workers to Belfast.

Belfast — Christopher Dyer, who is challenging Ward 5 City Councilor John Arrison in Belfast's only contested race, recalled a friend saying he shopped at a Hannaford Supermarket in another town because it was cheaper than the one in Belfast. It took Dyer a minute to realize the reason prices varied between two branches of the same business: one store had competition.

By the same token, Dyer believes the city would be better served by having large chain retail stores that the city has shooed away in the past. Stores like Walmart would have brought good jobs and affordable goods to the city. And while the city's fortunes have come up in recent years, Dyer said many people he talks to are still traveling to Bangor, Rockland, Augusta and other commercial hubs that have opened their doors to large chain retailers.

"They're making that monthly trip to do that shopping," he said. "That's money we could keep in Belfast, and it's jobs that we could have in Belfast year-round."

New jobs at Front Street Shipyard and athenahealth are good, he said, but those jobs require skills that many people don't have. Likewise, Dyer has no qualms with downtown shops that sell handmade or specialty items. Their customers aren't choosing between small stores and big ones, he said.

Dyer said he's heard Walmart has given up on Belfast, but he hopes to work with other members of the City Council to come up with ways to attract similar kinds of stores.

In the context of a 2016 City Council election, Dyer might seem like a throwback to the big box battles that fizzled out almost a decade ago — the soldier who never got the message that the war was over. But it's more likely that he speaks for a discontent that never went away.

Ward 5 lies entirely to the east of the Passagassawakeag River, and its city councilors have often carried the torch for a subset of the city residents who feel disenfranchised by wealthier newcomers. The term "newcomer" or "from away" often includes people who moved to Maine decades ago from Southern Connecticut, New Jersey, New York — where pay and opportunities were better and quality of life was in some ways worse — with big ideas for their adopted city and enough money to sit comfortably above the concerns of residents whose families have lived here, often just scraping by, for generations.

Dyer grew up in Belfast and was quick to note that among his qualifications for serving on the City Council.

Though he has lived in Maine most of his life, he spent time in Florida and Arizona where he worked in assisted living. When he returned to Maine and bought his childhood home in Belfast, he was struck by how few jobs there were. He worked at a video store in Augusta and later at Ocean State Job Lot in Belfast. Today he runs his own housekeeping and property management business, Maid 2 Order, and serves as a volunteer firefighter for the town of Searsport.

This election is Dyer's first time seeking public office, and it was something he only decided to pursue when he learned that no one else was running. Though he's looking forward to serving the people who have bent his ear about the lack of good shopping and jobs, he's not crazy about the idea of a silent minority remaining silent forever and said he wished others had run for City Council.

"If you complain about what's going on and you do nothing, how can you complain?" he asked.

The incumbent

John Arrison is seeking a second term as the City Councilor from Ward 5. He took office in 2014, following Nancy Hamilton, against whom he ran unsuccessfully in 2010.

Arrison's background is in naval engineering and history. He described going to MIT expecting to study yacht design, then doing some ocean racing on big yachts and thinking, "Do I really want those people to be my customers?"

In the 1980s, he wrote contract proposals for Bath Iron Works when the company was still making some commercial ships, and moved to Belfast in 1994. He has worked at the Penobscot Marine Museum. He sings in the a cappella group VoXX Voice of Twenty, is treasurer of the Greater Belfast Area Ministerium Food Cupboard, and for many years wrote the "Journal Files" series in this paper.

Today Arrison is semi-retired and sole proprietor of Shearwater Yacht Systems, a company he started to build and fix electrical and mechanical systems for boats. Shearwaters are migratory seabirds. Arrison recalled reading that they were "gregarious with ships," which is how he feels about himself.

As a city councilor, he sees himself as the "engineering tech guy," most likely to point out some minute inconsistency in a project bid or contract.

Recently, that meant vetting the new Airport Master Plan, which Arrison said he went through with a fine-toothed comb. The review highlighted problems with the work, and soon after the city decided to get a new airport consultant.

"I'm not always the first to talk," Arrison said. "But I think that I'm able to make some thoughtful decisions and express them."

Asked about the native vs. newcomer theme in City Council races, Arrison — a self-described "fourth-generation Maine tourist" for the last 22 years — said he doesn't see it that way. While working at Penobscot Marine Museum, he had many interactions with multi-generational residents through the museum's genealogical collection and appreciated being able to learn from them, he said.

He spoke highly of his fellow city councilors and said he believes the current council has been civil and done a good job of listening to the public.

Asked about challenges facing the city, Arrison spoke about the lack of affordable housing, domestic violence and drug use. On the economic side, he said, are the puzzle of the former Crosby High School building and vacant spaces at the Bank of America complex. He would also like to see the city more involved with what happens in Augusta, he said.

"It all comes down to stewardship," he said. "We need to be good stewards of our money and our people."

Arrison said he's glad to have some competition in the sense that contested races are healthy for democracy, but he doesn't see himself as a politician. Rather, he sees himself as a public servant with "frequent office hours in the aisles of Hannaford."

While Belfast City Council members are elected by a citywide vote and represent all residents. Ward 5 has often brought out councilors and candidates seeking to represent poorer and less politically savvy residents who live east of the river in their own ward. (Source: City of Belfast)
First-time candidate and Ward 5 challenger Chistopher Dyer, photographed at The Republican Journal office. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Ward 5 City Councilor John Arrison at his home on Highfield Lane. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Harold Richardson | Oct 26, 2016 19:17

Seems like two good candidates for ward 5.  I've never met Mr. Arrison but I hope he is reelected.  The council seems to work well together and has gotten a lot of good things done in recent years.  I don't see how a city councilor can have an impact on getting a multinational retailer to move here.  First, Belfast is a small market but mostly, big box retail is shrinking because of ever increasing internet sales. As far as I know, other than all those dollar stores, the big box stores are pretty much built out.  If one wanted to come here there was a place approved already many years ago so where are they.  Anyway-good luck to both candidates. 

If you wish to comment, please login.