With jazz music trailing into the warm night air and the last rays of twilight fading from the sky, more than 150 guests made their way up the Shore Road driveway and into Maria Gallace and Tim Soley’s lovely Cape Elizabeth shingle-style home (which many in the crowd remembered as Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 1997 Designer ShowHouse). Called the Friends, Food and Fort Williams party, the purpose of the Nov. 5 gathering was to kick off the public fundraising portion of The Arboretum at Fort Williams Park campaign.

The arboretum is a project of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, which raises funds for the preservation and improvement of the park where Portland Head Light is located. Open to the public 365 days a year, the park never charges an admission fee.

Since October, more than 100 volunteers have given in excess of 300 hours toward turning the dream of The Arboretum at Fort Williams Park into a reality. When finished, the project will include 15 sites landscaped with native and environmentally friendly plants and linked by walking paths.

In order to complete the arboretum, supporters need to raise $3.5 million, but right now they are focused on raising $350,000 for the project’s first phase, known as the Cliffside Demonstration Site.

When I chatted with Sarah Boudreau, who is vice chairperson of the steering committee, she told me, “We haven’t totally cleared it, but we’ve had five public work days to clear the site. We need to raise the money to get it built.”

The first site of the arboretum will be designed during the winter, while the fundraising campaign is under way.

Boudreau said the project has a number of goals, including combating the park’s invasive plant problem, educating the public about native and sustainable plants, improving the water views from the park and getting community members actively involved in building the arboretum.

“The ultimate goal is a legacy for generations to come,” Boudreau told me.

Alice Rand, who is the president of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, said she’s been surprised by how much progress volunteers have made in clearing the site.

“The Fort Williams Charitable Foundation was set up by the town over 10 years ago,” Rand told me. “The project is really going to have a tremendous impact in improving the fort.”

Lise Pratt attended a recent volunteer work party with dozens of other community members.

“There were about 30 or 40 of us,” Pratt told me. “After two hours of work, all of a sudden you could see the view.”

The impressive ocean view uncovered by the removal of the overgrown jungle of invasive plants was mentioned by many at the party.

“It’s amazing how it’s opened up,” advisory board member Kathryn Bean Davis told me. “I think now people will be able to see the potential.”

When she spoke to the crowd, chair of the arboretum steering committee Kathryn Bacastow thanked the local businesses who donated refreshments for the party and the Local Buzzards jazz trio for performing.

“I suppose we’re all here because we realize Fort Williams is truly a gem,” Bacastow said. “More than 600,000 people visit the fort every year.”

Bacastow was followed at the mic by Maureen Heffernan, the executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

“I’m here to tell you you can do it,” Heffernan said.

She went on to relate the long, slow process supporters of the botanical gardens went through before the project came to fruition. Heffernan told us that because the initial group of supporters was small and their means were limited, a number of people took out second mortgages on their homes to use as collateral in purchasing the property.

Looking out at the full house, Heffernan predicted that the arboretum would have an easier time attracting donations.

“You will be so proud to be in on the ground floor of a project that’s transformative,” Heffernan said.

It’s also a chance to create an environmentally sustainable heritage to be enjoyed by future members of the community.

“As (steering committee member) Rick Churchill says, we’re not planting these trees for ourselves,” Bacastow told the crowd. “We’re planting them for our children and our children’s children.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

[email protected]