2021 Year in Review: Pandemic issues continue

Sat, 01/01/2022 - 8:45am

    We all hoped the COVID-19 pandemic – which dominated the news for the second straight year – would end sometime in 2021; however, the end-of-the-year numbers for cases, hospitalizations and deaths have increased to record levels since March 2020. Debates about vaccinations, testing and mask-wearing cropped up in 2021 and the public tried to return to some type of normal by allowing gatherings without the same restrictions as in 2020. Life went on in 2021 and it remains to be seen how long the pandemic will rule our way of life.

    There were changes in town meetings, virtual church services continued (later some churches allowed masked attendance or masking during singing), sports seasons were changed, school attendance went from virtual to in-person (and part-time on both), masks remained required and there were temporary returns to remote learning as needed; vaccinations were administered throughout the state. Vaccinations were started at Boothbay Region YMCA in late January and continued until June.

    Southport changed its annual town meeting from March to April and from an open meeting to voting by referendum – all due to COVID-19.

    Alna also voted by referendum. Alna boards resumed meeting in-person and let the public attend that way or via Zoom. By year’s end, Wiscasset’s selectboard and some of the town’s other panels went back to meeting on Zoom except for special town meetings at Wiscasset Community Center.

    The Boothbay Region High School basketball season didn’t begin until January, players had to wear masks, no fans were allowed, and the schedule only included nearby teams.

    BRHS had two firsts – the graduation ceremony and Grand March were held outside in June – to safeguard against spreading COVID-19.

    For a second year, Wiscasset Middle High School had graduation at Wiscasset Speedway. And in the 2021-22 school year, Wiscasset School Committee and Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit’s board took heat from some parents over COVID decisions, including Wiscasset’s to require masking and SVRSU’s to have a voluntary vaccination clinic at school.

    The annual Windjammer Days Street Parade was canceled but organizers prompted businesses and homeowners to decorate their properties on two themes, Historic Schooners and Red, White and Blue, for a drive-through parade, much along the lines of what New Orleans did for Mardi Gras. Tourists and ships arrived and several of the usual events (minus music, etc.) were held.

    Wiscasset’s inaugural Schoonerfest in August had the Wiscasset-built When and If return, sea chanties, geocaching, artists’ schooner silhouettes and WMHS students in period-like dress reading off shilling laws. Selectmen debated if and how to help fund the event beyond any police or other needs. Organizers later pulled the request and after the five-day event said ideas were already underway for Schoonerfest 2022.

    Wiscasset Art Walk returned in full. So did First Congregational Church of Wiscasset’s Summerfest and Wiscasset’s Halloween event Nightmare on Federal Street. St. Philip’s Episcopal Church’s Strawberry Festival took another year off and the church got a new priest-in charge, Tom Junkert, while First Congregational’s pastor, Josh Fitterling, resigned after much reflection.

    Staffing shortages at businesses, namely restaurants, forced reduced hours and shutdown days. However, As Labor Day approached, the Boothbay Register reached out to several businesses in Boothbay Harbor to see how they fared this summer. The unanimous answer was business had been extremely busy, bringing both opportunities and challenges for owners and employees.

    Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens representatives reported that 22,000 vehicles went through its first drive-through Gardens Aglow in 2020. Gardens Aglow was also drive-through in 2021.

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    The opening date for the new Barters Island bridge was changed several times due to various problems – from January, to April, to June – but finally, in August, an opening ceremony was held. The $8.2 million Maine Department of Transportation project, which began in March 2019 and was constructed by Reed & Reed of Woolwich, officially opened as longtime bridge tender and local resident Stanley Hodgdon was driven across the bridge in a Mercury Cougar XR-7 by Roland McLellan following a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

    Boothbay Green, housing for the elderly, was shut down in January due to financial and staffing issues, and residents were moved to other facilities within the region.

    From mid-year on, Maine Art Gallery and Wiscasset were moving toward a possible long-team lease of the gallery’s longtime home, the town-owned, former Wiscasset Academy on Warren Street. The gallery hoped a longer lease would help it get grants. 

    Lavallee Brensinger Architects presented the Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor Community School District community with the final draft of the master plan, new building concept and recommendations for Boothbay Elementary and High schools Jan. 27. The firm’s Lance Whitehead said after over a year of meetings and surveys with community members, students and staff and weighing the needs and desires, the firm determined two options for the CSD: a $14.5 million band-aid or $44 to $49 million in renovations and consolidation. In February, the Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor Community School District school committee and board of trustees moved forward with Lavallee and Brensinger’s master plan concept design phase. The two panels met jointly over Zoom to discuss and vote on Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 Superintendent Keith Laser’s recommendations which also included accepting unconditional donations to fund the approximately $2.5 million phase, establishing a building committee which will solicit an architectural firm and, after the design is done, set a CSD-wide referendum. New AOS 98 Superintendent Robert Kahler told Community School District trustees Dec. 1, the next phase for the Building Exploratory Committee (BEC) is creating a group to review the campus’s conditions. The group will have school board members, principals, teachers, students and people from the wider community and will ideally meet three times in January in sessions of about two and a half hours. The group will be considering the CSD’s current visioning work including the ideal setting for that vision to be realized, Kahler said. “They're going to start by looking at how does the design of the building enhance that ... and all that information will be going out to community members in various settings. It's not a finalized deal, but it's beginning to take some of this theoretical stuff and start to say what might that look like, what are people’s dreams, what are their concerns, what are their questions.”

    March elections yielded two new Alna selectmen, followed by the resignation of the only experienced board member, Melissa Spinney, over concern about the board’s new makeup. Then as Linda Kristin and Charles Culbertson learned to conduct town business in consultation with town counsel, Maine Municipal Association and others, once voting to put in a moratorium on accessory apartments, then learning it would take a town vote, they were for months fielding Freedom of Access Act requests from Spinney over town finances, and facing regular, sometimes yelled, criticism from fellow masked residents. Dueling citizen petitions and former selectman Doug Baston’s call that Kristan did not take him up on for her to resign, kept the controversial roll going. Voters put Ed Pentaleri back on the board Dec. 14; both petitioned questions lost and, the next night, selectmen announced a pause on the public comment part of meetings while the board retools it.

    No one was hurt April 3 when hundreds of bricks fell from the Wawenock block building onto the Main Street, Wiscasset sidewalk. Fire Chief Rob Bickford received a report that the side of the three-story brick building had dangerously buckled. “I looked away for just a minute and then heard a tremendous crash, bricks and chunks of mortar were all over the sidewalk,” Bickford told Wiscasset Newspaper. Some affected businesses reopened elsewhere, scaffolding went up and Town Manager Dennis Simmons said Dec. 30, owner Ralph Doering has told the town “that they are still waiting for the insurance company to settle, but they are working on a timeline for moving forward and getting the repairs completed.”

    MaineHealth announced Cindy Wade, RN,BSN, MHA was chosen to lead LincolnHealth as its president. Wade was picked after a nationwide search and succeeded Jim Donovan, who retired March 28.

    BRHS senior Glory Blethen joined sister Faith and other alumni as a 1,000-point scorer by making a three-pointer in a game against Medomak Feb. 15. Her coach and father, Brian Blethen, announced in the spring that he would not be returning in the fall. He guided the Lady Seahawks to their first state championship in 35 years in 2019.

    It was announced in Febuary that New England Aqua Ventus (NEAV), formerly known as Maine Aqua Ventus, will ramp up efforts to put a single 10-12 megawatt, 654-foot turbine about two miles south of Monhegan Island. NEAV is a partnership between Maine Prime Technologies – a business arm of the University of Maine – and wind industry giants Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, and RWE Renewables. The project seeks to lay over 20 miles of cable several feet under the ocean floor from East Boothbay shores to the site. Boothbay region fishermen and community members expressed concern. And East Boothbay residents were surprised Nov. 11 by surveyors and a drilling team investigating three possible cable routes for the project. The turbine will be connected to the Central Maine Power power grid from the Bigelow Laboratory campus where an underground cable will run to the Boothbay Harbor substation at the Routes 96 and 27 intersection. NEAV met with East Boothbay residents Dec. 2 and 3 over concerns about the survey work that occurred without notice except for a press release dated two days in advance and published the same day.The Diamond Offshore/RWE Renewables/University of Maine partnership hired teams from SGC Engineering and Ransom Engineering to conduct surveys and drilling samples along Murray Hill Road/Mass Avenue areas which included Victoria Street and Sunset Drive.

    Boothbay selectmen received several complaints from the public about Lester Spear’s Food Trucks-A-Go enterprise on Route 27 due to the parking concerns along Route 27. Later in the year, it was decided that holding the event on Boothbay Common would be safer, and that is where it was held.

    Maine Department of Transportation and Woolwich officials talked in April about $900,000 in proposed improvements to two intersections on Nequasset Road that may include a Route 1 traffic signal. In November, the board discussed the state’s planned replacement of the Station 46 bridge on Route 1. Woolwich officials were awaiting word on a possible connector road about a quarter-mile north of the current George Wright Road/Route 1 intersection.

    Ship Ahoy Motel on Southport Island was bought by Swingbridge Partners and is being developed into an eight-lot subdivision.

    In May, some Wiscasset selectmen and residents questioned the prospect of a local marker for a non-resident, poet-civil rights advocate James Weldon Johnson, who died in a 1938 car-train crash downtown. An event in Wiscasset Oct. 23 honored and brainstormed how to honor Johnson. Speakers called him a great man for helping turn National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from a scattered to a national organization, being the first black admitted to the Florida bar; a U.S. diplomat, Broadway songwriter, and writer of the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In December, selectmen were awaiting a plaque design, and the woman spearheading the local effort, Lucia Droby, was waiting to learn if the town or a new state task force on a Johnson observance will be in charge of the piece. 

    A group of concerned community members and professionals, known as Boothbay Region Housing Trust, received approval for 501 (c) (3) status. With the goal of adding dozens of homes to the region in the next few years and more in the future, the new status gives the group the potential to become a big player in battling the region’s housing crisis.

    Boothbay Region YMCA announced it will improve and update its main lobby area, Child Enrichment Center (CEC), annex building and parking lot. Executive Director Andy Hamblett and Knickerbocker Group’s Brent James unveiled plans to the Boothbay Harbor planning board April 14 in a pre-application discussion. Improvements include expanding the building footprints by 2,400 square feet, replacing the annex building, renovating the CEC, installing new stormwater drainage and renovating the parking lot, bringing total parking from 138 spots to 171.

    Southport voted in favor of funding the installation of a fiber-optic system on the island to bring better internet service to residents and businesses. The town contracted with Axiom Technologies, LLC of Machias for the work.

    Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 welcomed new Superintendent Robert Kahler July 1. He spent nearly six years as principal at Lisbon Community School. Superintendent Keith Laser retired June 30.

    A June town vote in Wiscasset supported studying the town school department’s future, “including all options for expansion, consolidation, or continuing the status quo.” At the committee’s first meeting on Dec. 2, no one spoke in favor of the longstanding idea among some residents to tuition out the high school grades. Participants mostly talked about wanting more students; how to tell the public what Wiscasset Middle High School offers; and find out what else people want it to offer. 

    Staffing problems prompted the “temporary” closing of the Zimmerli Pavilion at St. Andrews Village in May. As of this publication date, the facility has not reopened.

    Keepers of Burnt Island Lighthouse celebrated 200 years of service with several events from summer into fall.

    The 16th Annual Westport Island Shore Run 10K Road Race on Aug. 15 scored a record turnout, with 64 runners and 10 participants in the 3.5-mile fun walk.

    Work on East Side Waterfront Park in Boothbay Harbor began. The Boothbay Harbor planning board reaffirmed findings of fact from a Sept. 8 decision Nov. 17. The board's September approval for Boothbay Harbor Waterfront Preservation's site plan revision at 65 Atlantic Ave. was appealed by abutters Joseph and Jill Doyle Oct. 28. The appeals board remanded the matter to the planning board for more detailed information on its findings.

    The region mourned the untimely death of longtime childcare business owner Kimberly Crocker, 46, in an ATV accident in northern Maine in July.

    With aging facilities, delinquent reimbursements, regulations and staffing shortages, LincolnHealth continues to evaluate all options to sustain nursing home care in Lincoln County. The LincolnHealth board agreed to work with Sandy River Company to assess the possibility of building a new nursing and skilled nursing facility in Damariscotta.

    Allen “Big Al” Cohen announced in September, his well-known Big Al’s Super Values store on Route 1 he had for 35 years would liquidate and close. Cohen said he has been down so many workers in the pandemic, he has done a lot more himself and realized, he could not keep doing it. He said his fireworks store next door and his Boothbay storage business will stay open.

    The boys Seahawks-Wolverines cross country team took a close second place and the girls fifth at the Southern Maine Class C Regional Championship in Augusta Oct. 23. Runners Lucas Hardwick, Gryffin Kristan, Dominick Dow, Ryan Clark, Laura Chapman, Ava Schlosser, Maddie Orchard and Emerson Harris earned the chance to compete at the Maine Class C State Championship. The boys finished fourth in the state. Seahawks coach Nick Scott won another Coach of the Year award in the Mountain Valley Conference.

    Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit’s board decided unanimously Oct. 14 to have Superintendent of Schools Howie Tuttle find out if Wiscasset wants to keep taking students other schools will not. In a couple of years, when that deal that came from Wiscasset’s withdrawal is set to end, the district will still need a high school of record, one that takes students other schools will not, Tuttle explained. Wiscasset Superintendent of Schools Terry Wood told the Wiscasset School committee the matter will need discussing, because SVRSU students are succeeding in Wiscasset, “but that also puts a lot of pressure on us, having to accept any student.”

    Oct. 19, Wiscasset selectmen passed MSD Wiscasset, LLC’s $28,000 a year lease of Wiscasset Municipal Airport land for a 20-acre solar project.

    The Boothbay Register and Wiscasset Newspaper won 13 awards in the 2020-2021 Maine Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including three main awards: first place in General Excellence-Digital for its website; third place General Excellence-Print for its print product, and the combined newspapers won third place General Excellence-Advertising for its print product.

    Edgecomb eyed its future Oct. 25. A Zoom forum had selectmen and several other residents talking about broadband, Edgecomb Historical Society’s needs, and possible improvements to the circa 1794 town hall, including an addition.

    Wiscasset was in for big news late year on the former Wiscasset Primary School. Simmons announced Oct. 29, the owners of the Gardiner Road property, JSJ Holdings, reached a memo of understanding with Wiscasset Senior Living LLC to change the property into senior housing. A project representative later told a Zoom public hearing the site would have about 30 independent units, plus 23 or 24 memory care ones and from 40 to 45 assisted living ones, and features including a chapel, social pub, fitness area and possibly a theater. Plans call for demolishing the school’s interior as early as this winter. At a special town meeting at Wiscasset Community Center Dec. 7, voters unanimously passed a tax increment financing (TIF) proposal for the development. According to Simmons’ Dec. 21 report to selectmen, the TIF still needs state approval and the project still needs planning board approval.

    Westport Island outdoor special town meeting goers Nov. 13 unanimously approved a proposed broadband expansion  agreement with Spectrum.

    Boothbay Harbor selectmen recapped a Nov. 23 footbridge meeting with renovation project consultants from Gartley and Dorsky Dec. 13. The meeting set some of the criteria for a bid package document which will go out to engineering and design firms for recommendations and cost estimates. The meeting covered aesthetics, bridge width and materials and height. Selectmen echoed the community’s consensus the bridge maintain the historic-type look with a wooden deck and preservation of swingspan elements. They also supported a width increase from 7’2” to 8’.