May 27, 2012

As Vigue stumps for highway project, foes follow

Despite personal threats, Cianbro Corp.'s chairman says he has no plans to abandon his quest for an East-West Highway in Maine.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

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The East-West Highway is the latest take on a cross-Maine transportation route that dates back to the 1930s.

Maine was settled largely along north-south rivers, and the highways that now connect its major cities follow geography. What’s missing, many business leaders and politicians believe, is an east-west road that can act as a shorter route for Canadian goods moving between Maritime seaports and Quebec.

That could transform Maine into a trade gateway, they say, rather than an obstacle to drive around. And it would offer economic opportunities to struggling rural communities along the way.

This idea has long resonated with Peter Vigue, Cianbro Corp.’s chairman and chief executive, who grew up poor in northern Maine and rose to lead one of Maine’s largest and most successful businesses.

But after decades of watching failed attempts to gain public funding, Vigue decided a different approach was needed. In 2007, he introduced his plan for a private toll road. The idea faded during the recession, but was revived last winter, bolstered by a $300,000 state loan that was championed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

Vigue feels passionately about this potential, and he's a man with the political and business connections, and the personal drive, to make unlikely things happen in Maine: Who expected Portland to build semi-submersible oil rigs for Brazil, or Brewer to send modular steel frames to nickel mines in Newfoundland?

But this project will take more than vision and top management skills. It will need broad public and political support. To get that, Vigue has been stumping like a politician, making presentations to business leaders and development officials along the proposed route.

As he speaks, he is followed by a small but growing collection of opponents. They hold up signs with messages such as "Vigue's dream is our nightmare" and protest outside the closed events.

But according to Vigue, critics have gone beyond protesting. He said he has received specific threats that have convinced him that his personal safety is at risk. Protesters, he said, also have confronted business people leaving these meetings with shouting and profanity.

"Their tactics are becoming more and more unprofessional," he said. "It's not the way we do things in Maine."

Vigue blames extreme environmentalists, who he says are coming to Maine from other states to fight the highway. He says they are affiliated with national groups that oppose energy, mining and highway projects elsewhere.

"Maine has become a battleground state," he said.

In late March, Vigue traveled across the border at Calais to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, to make his pitch to Canadian business leaders. He was accompanied by Maine's transportation commissioner, David Bernhardt.

Vigue said he had reason to believe that he might be followed by people who were threatening him. According to Vigue, he was told that Canadian border agents denied access to some people who lacked proper identification or were on an "ecoterrorist" watch list. He declined to say how he became aware of this.

This revelation is of interest to Pete Brenc, who lives in Dover-Foxcroft and owns 75 acres of farmland in Atkinson.

Brenc is a spokesman for the Friends of Piscataquis Valley, one of the ad hoc groups forming to fight the highway. He and his wife have been protesting Vigue's talks, and he was in St. Stephen when a police car started following him.

"The police asked me, 'Where are you going; where are the rest of you?' " Brenc said.

Brenc is retired and moved to town seven years ago. He worries about the highway running near his farmland. Brenc said he has never threatened anyone, but based on the anger and anxiety he's hearing, he's not surprised if someone has told Vigue to back off.

"We hear from a lot of people saying they're armed," he said. "People feel this in their chests. I'm not a warrior, but I do believe people did call (Vigue) on the phone."

Vigue's charges seem less plausible to Buchanan, organizer of the anti-highway coalition. She said protesters have been "respectful," and she hasn't witnessed any yelling or cursing. She's also not aware of out-of-state extremists threatening violence in Maine.

Buchanan's group is a chapter of a national "populist movement" called the Alliance for Democracy. It sponsors water-protection chapters in Oregon, Washington and California. Buchanan's group emerged in Maine to fight expansion plans by Poland Spring, the bottled-water subsidiary of Nestle.

But Buchanan, who has lived in Belgrade for six years, said her highway-fighting efforts are based solely in Maine.

She's trying to coordinate local anti-highway groups, including Friends of Piscataquis Valley and Stop the Corridor; wind power foes, such as Friends of Boundary Mountains and Forest Ecology Network; and activists with a looser presence in Maine, including the Occupy movement and Earth First!

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