A gust of hope in Searsport with promise of new jobs, economic boost from wind port

Labor groups talk with residents, who’ve seen industries dry up and leave the midcoast, about opportunities in wind energy

BY: ANNMARIE HILTON - MAY 15, 2024 12:38 PM

James Gillway remembers when chicken was king in his corner of the Penobscot Bay.

Chicken coops were scattered in yards all across Searsport — the town of 2,800 he has managed for almost 20 years — because of the processing plant just up the road in Belfast. 

For those who didn’t work with poultry, there were plenty of other jobs: Shoemaking, potato processing, even a sardine plant. But those industries and their career prospects for locals have since dried up. 

Now, if a family moves to the area, Gillway said they likely find jobs in retail or hospitality. The tourism industry is still strong, but nothing has filled the gap left by a paper mill in nearby Bucksport that closed in 2014 and took about 500 jobs with it. 

Although Gillway said the closure was “abrupt, but not unforeseen,” it left a hole yet to be filled. 

But now Searsport finds itself poised between a lackluster job market and becoming the epicenter of Maine’s budding offshore wind industry. More than 50 people gathered Tuesday evening at the Searsport Community Building to learn about the hundreds, maybe even one thousand jobs that could soon blow in. 

“This floating offshore wind gives an opportunity to have a new economic engine in the midcoast,” said Scott Cuddy, director of policy for the Maine Labor Climate Council and an electrician by trade who formerly served in the Maine House of Representatives for District 37. 

The event organized by the Maine Labor Climate Council was an opportunity for the community to learn about the jobs that could be generated through the construction of an offshore wind port in Searsport and the floating wind turbines that will be launched in the Gulf of Maine. In February, Gov. Janet Mills said the state would prefer to build it on Sears Island, a decision some have pushed back on saying they would prefer it be built on Mack Point rather than developing an uninhabited natural landscape. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Gillway and union representatives discussed how offshore wind has the potential to bring good-paying jobs, workforce training opportunities and transformative economic development to Searsport and Waldo County.

 
Scott Cuddy, director of policy for the Maine Labor Climate Council, speaks to Searsport residents about the possible job opportunities available with the new offshore wind port. (AnnMarie Hilton/ Maine Morning Star)



Nineteen-year-old Wesley Cowan, who was there with his brother and father, said he could see the vision. After the meeting, Cowan said he thinks the new industry could bring more life to a part of coastal Maine that can sometimes feel “dead.”

Cowan’s father, Daniel, lives in Belfast — although he said he wouldn’t be opposed to becoming a Searsport resident — and went back to school when he couldn’t find a job after he left the Navy in 2019. But he wasn’t just there for his own career potential. Daniel said his sons just finished their first year at the University of Maine, but school doesn’t seem to be the best path for them, so now they are looking for jobs. 

Wesley and his brother are a perfect example of the mindset shift union leaders hope to see happen: You don’t need to go to college to be successful. 

Instead, they want young people to know that there is a pathway through apprenticeships to good-paying jobs with healthcare and retirement benefits that doesn’t require you to accumulate student debt. Such blue collar or manufacturing jobs may not be as abundant as they once were in places like Searsport, but they are out there and there’s potential for even more through the creation of the offshore wind industry. 

“That can be transformative for a family to have fantastic healthcare benefits, to have excellent retirement options, to have a skill that’s going to pay you really well and give you the opportunity to help your family make it into the middle class,” said Sam Boss, apprenticeship, workforce and equity director for Maine AFL-CIO. “That’s not something that we have growing on trees in rural Maine.”

Cuddy couldn’t say exactly how many union jobs will be created and how many of them will continue beyond the construction of the port, but he said the turbines will need maintenance and there will be work to do, even after the port is built. 

Although deciding where exactly to build the port has been a point of contention for many people, the Maine Labor Climate Council is “agnostic” on the siting, Cuddy said. Either location in Searsport will bring jobs to the area. However, Cuddy testified in favor of a bill, LD 2266, that would allow Sears Island to remain an option — even though the port could potentially destroy a sand dune that formed on Sears Island after construction of a causeway and jetty — so long as all other permitting criteria are met. 

On Tuesday night, Cuddy defended the council’s neutral position despite his testimony. Without Sears Island, Mack Point is left as the only option; so if an issue arises during the evaluation process, the community could be left without the offshore wind industry and its benefits, Cuddy explained. 

Benefits to the community at large 

It’s not just individual families that stand to gain from offshore wind moving to the midcoast. 

Searsport’s schools and tax base could benefit from good-paying jobs acting as a magnet for families to the area. Gillway said the high school has capacity for 700 students, but there are fewer than 500 currently enrolled in the whole district. 

The actual benefits that could befall the community are yet to be determined. That will be worked out in a community benefits agreement that the town will create with whoever ends up developing the port. 

The new port could create a need for better local infrastructure, Gillway said, for example stronger fire protection or improved roadways. The benefits agreement will spell out how much of those types of costs will fall to the town versus the developer, and is a place to include any other incentives or agreements between the two entities. 

Aside from the possibility of improvements, the agreement also gives the town a say in preserving its character, Gillway said. The coastal New England community has an attractive downtown lined with old sea captains’ homes. Gillway said it has remained largely unchanged and preserved its history through the Penobscot Maritime Museum.

Hopeful for the future

Maine has committed to procuring three gigawatts of offshore wind — enough to power between 675,000 and 900,000 homes — by the end of 2040. Even though the state and federal permitting processes to reach that goal put these new jobs years down the road, union and town leaders are raising awareness now because state law already ensures strong labor standards for the jobs that come from the offshore wind industry. 

Grant Provost, business manager for Ironworkers Local 7, sketched out a loose timeline estimating that construction of the port would possibly start in 2026 or 2027. Cuddy said he would personally love the opportunity to do electrical work for offshore wind, but as someone later in his career, he knows the window is shrinking. Even if he doesn’t end up working on the turbines, Cuddy said he already thinks about talking to his 13-year-old son about it being a potential path for his future.

Thinking about Searsport 10 years from now brings a grin to Gillway’s face — a feeling he describes as “hopeful.” New jobs could be a boon, yes, but the town is already undergoing improvements with the building of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant. The orange cones lining the main drag are evidence of the improved pedestrian safety that’s also on its way. 

“I hope that the area, the general area, flourishes,” Gillway said, looking to the future.

Searsport won’t be home to all of the 30,000 jobs — from electricians to lawyers — the state hopes will come from the clean energy industry, but even just a few hundred “would help the town a lot,” Gillway said. 

ANNMARIE HILTON

AnnMarie Hilton grew up in a suburb of Chicago and studied journalism at Northwestern University. Before coming to Maine, she covered education for newspapers in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Maine Morning Star is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Maine Center For Public Interest Reporting – Three Part Series: A CRITICAL LOOK AT MAINE’S WIND ACT

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(excerpts) From Part 1 – On Maine’s Wind Law “Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine if the law’s goals were met." . – Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 2010 https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/wind-power-bandwagon-hits-bumps-in-the-road-3/From Part 2 – On Wind and Oil Yet using wind energy doesn’t lower dependence on imported foreign oil. That’s because the majority of imported oil in Maine is used for heating and transportation. And switching our dependence from foreign oil to Maine-produced electricity isn’t likely to happen very soon, says Bartlett. “Right now, people can’t switch to electric cars and heating – if they did, we’d be in trouble.” So was one of the fundamental premises of the task force false, or at least misleading?" https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/wind-swept-task-force-set-the-rules/From Part 3 – On Wind-Required New Transmission Lines Finally, the building of enormous, high-voltage transmission lines that the regional electricity system operator says are required to move substantial amounts of wind power to markets south of Maine was never even discussed by the task force – an omission that Mills said will come to haunt the state.“If you try to put 2,500 or 3,000 megawatts in northern or eastern Maine – oh, my god, try to build the transmission!” said Mills. “It’s not just the towers, it’s the lines – that’s when I begin to think that the goal is a little farfetched.” https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/flaws-in-bill-like-skating-with-dull-skates/

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Hannah Pingree on the Maine expedited wind law

Hannah Pingree - Director of Maine's Office of Innovation and the Future

"Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine."

https://pinetreewatch.org/wind-power-bandwagon-hits-bumps-in-the-road-3/

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