Fear and loathing in Biddeford

There are two basic ways in which human beings make decisions. Either we act based on our fears, or we respond to our visions and dreams by planning — if only in incremental steps — for our future.

The Maine Energy Recovery Company’s waste-to-energy facility occupies an 8-acre site on the banks of the Saco River in downtown Biddeford.

For more than three decades, those of us who live in Biddeford have wrestled with the dilemma of having a trash-to-energy incinerator located smack dab in the middle of our downtown.

In retrospect, it certainly would appear the decision to locate the Maine Energy Recovery Company on the banks of the Saco River was a short-sighted, reactionary move based on short-term objectives. But at the time, it seemed like a great opportunity, and few people remember that both Biddeford and Saco were competing to have the incinerator located in their community.

Today, we have the luxury of 20-20 hindsight, not to mention the harsh realization that the decision made 30 years ago was executed without the benefit of all the anecdotal knowledge and hard data that comes with burning trash in the midst of an area striving for economic redevelopment.

It makes sense that I am spending so much time lately looking back at 1982. It was a pivotal time in my life. In June, I graduated from high school and it was exactly 30 years ago today — on July 2 — that I reported to Lackland Air Force Base for my first day of basic training.

When I left Saco, there was no MERC….when I returned home many weeks later, I was greeted by the unmistakable presence of a new stack looming over the horizon of my hometown. It was designed by General Electric and our downtown was all but abandoned, lost in the rush of interstate expansion and a sprawling retail mall located just 15 minutes up the road.

Some downtown businesses — Reilly’s Bakery, Youlands and others — survived, but many others did not. Eli the Cobbler, Murphy’s Music and McKenney & Heard are today nothing more than faint and fond memories. The same goes for Butler’s, Woolworth’s, the Children’s Shop, Polakewich’s, Nichol’s….that list is endless.

MERC did not kill downtown Biddeford, but it also didn’t provide much relief for a patient that was already on life support.

Things change…it is the only constant; and today Biddeford is a much different community than it was in 1982.

I have had my fill of looking back, of yanking out the scrapbooks of my subconscious memory. I am also weary of the fear and the constant worry of an uncertain financial future that seems to be the fodder for cable news and talk radio hosts.

I was working as the editor of the Courier when Biddeford Blankets announced its abrupt closing. I remember going down there to cover the story, and I will never forget the experience of speaking with the hundreds of suddenly displaced employees who were grappling with the unpleasant reality of an unknown future.

They stood in the parking lot, huddled in small groups, backs against the biting winds of an early winter. They hugged one another, glanced backward at the buildings where they toiled and slowly made their way home.

Biddeford was shifting again. It wasn’t much longer before the WestPoint mill was also shuttered.

Looking at those brick mill buildings, those icons of my hometown’s past, it was hard — if not impossible — back then to imagine what life would be like without those places. But Biddeford, especially its people, are strong and resilient.

The city survived, and new life began creeping back to those mills.

So, yes…I am weary of the rear view mirror and the fears of the unknown. I want to stop looking back and begin looking forward.

Where will Biddeford be 10, 20 or even 30 years from now? What unimagined potential lies along the river’s banks? Can I see this city the way it was viewed by the people who settled here more than 300 years ago?

Am I a man of vision or fear? Thirty years from now, when my son is 47, will he respect the decision his father made?

The bottom line: are we better with or without a trash incinerator in the middle of our downtown? Are we tired of the problem? Are we willing to take the steps needed to solve that problem?

Tomorrow evening (July 3), we will all have the opportunity to weigh in about a proposal crafted by the city of Biddeford and MERC’s owners to finally close the facility. It is a complex proposition, and I invite you and everyone else to learn more about the plan, its benefits… and yes, its consequences.

You can read, print and download all the documents by visiting the city’s website; and you can also find all those documents and much more information, including Frequently Asked Questions and recent media stories about the plan by visiting a site set up by the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce by clicking this link: closemercplan.org

I hope to see you at City Theater on Tuesday night. Regardless of how you feel about the proposal, your voice matters. And I hope you will join me in looking forward without fear.

Disclosure Notice: I am a resident of Biddeford, but I also provide professional consulting services to Casella Waste Systems, the company that owns and operates MERC.

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8 thoughts on “Fear and loathing in Biddeford

  1. Very interesting Saco was competing for this in the 1980s, i grew up in biddeford and had no idea of this… kind of funny because they hold their nose up to all things biddeford, but they almost had the prize of MERC on their side of the river.. i find that very, very interesting.

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  2. Excellent commentary, Randy, one of your best so far. I look forward to the day when I can return to the city of my birth, either to visit or to live, and be able to BREATHE!

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  3. Very well-written, Randy. The only thing I would say vis-a-vis your point on how MERC did not seemingly impede some of our long-standing established businesses, I might argue that it was a deterrent for scores of potential new entrants. I hinted at this mildly in my own blog post earlier today, and maintain that the decision at hand has everything to do with a long-range strategy to strengthen and bolster the city’s future. Again, kudos to you on this post!

    Daniel

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