EASTPORT – This city of islands comes to life each summer, when thousands of people clog the downtown for Maine’s largest Independence Day celebration.

But on a late winter afternoon, a visitor can stand in the middle of Water Street and not worry about traffic. Only a pizza shop, restaurant and motel are open.

There are a few signs of optimism. A clothing store that was closed for years is being renovated. Someone has scrawled, ”Eastport welcomes the new owners,” on an adjacent storefront. But darkened, seasonal art galleries and vacant buildings give the street an abandoned feel.

That’s why the activities of Ocean Renewable Power Co. are eagerly watched. In the past three years, the Portland-based tidal energy startup says it has spent more than $5 million on goods and services in eight Maine counties and created or retained 80 jobs. In Eastport, it has leased a city-owned building, directly employed a couple of locals and put fishermen and tradespeople to work building equipment and moving gear on the water.

”Anyone who brings even one job into Washington County is bringing one job we didn’t have before,” said Robert Peacock, the City Council chairman. ”And one job means so much.”

A freighter pilot for the port, Peacock said the company has given the area a psychological lift as it tries to position itself as a platform for an emerging industry.

”The hope of having something coming that the state and nation need – clean energy – is so important,” he said.

Eastport once had hundreds of people working in the sardine industry. Today, no private company employs more than 100 people. An aquaculture plant, a fabrics company, a grocery store and the Port of Eastport are among the largest private employers, with schools and the city rounding out the public sector.

The city got a scare last year when the Domtar pulp mill in Baileyville, outside Calais, shut down. Domtar trucks pulp to Eastport to ship overseas. The port is overwhelmingly dependent on the mill for business, as are nearly 70 jobs.

The Calais-Eastport unemployment rate jumped to more than 17 percent with the shutdown. Fortunately, the mill resumed operation after a few months.

”I shudder to think what the long-term number would have been,” said Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority and chairman of the Washington County commissioners.

But even with the mill operating, the area’s unemployment rate hangs around 13 percent, five points above the statewide average. Now the port is on a new push to find other lines of business and is actively supporting the development of tidal power.

”We want to be the epicenter of ORPC’s manufacturing, research and development,” Gardner said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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