No rush to demolish

To the Editor:

The town of Southwest Harbor is proposing to purchase and demolish a 137-year-old house located at 44 Shore Road to provide increased parking for the Manset Town Dock. I do not offer an opinion as to the need for, or advisability of the parking lot, but I strongly object to the demolition of the 19th-century farmhouse on the property.

In recent discussions with local and town leaders, I have heard skepticism as to the importance of preserving historic buildings in Southwest Harbor, and it was suggested that saving old buildings was in conflict with securing the long-term economic health of the community. This perspective was reiterated at the hearing held on Oct. 13.

I submit that not only is saving historic buildings in the area an essential element of the long-term economic vibrancy of the Southwest Harbor community, it is perhaps the most critical.

The form of tourism that brings travelers to Southwest Harbor is heritage tourism. The Federal definition of heritage tourism is “the business and practice of attracting and accommodating visitors to a place or area based especially on the unique or special aspects of that locale’s history, landscape (including trail systems) and culture.”

The National Park Service also understands the importance of heritage tourism and offers support to individuals and communities to encourage preservation.

Nationwide, struggling downtowns have revitalized their communities through preservation using the Main Street model. In Maine, examples of success stories are Augusta, Bath, Belfast, Biddeford, Brunswick, Gardiner, Rockland, Saco, Skowhegan and Waterville.

For smaller towns, a Maine Downtown Network Community Program is available and being pursued by towns such as Bar Harbor, Castine, Damariscotta, Eastport, Stonington, Bucksport, etc. Blue Hill also is looking into pursuing this assistance.

There is a great deal of information about the positive economic impact of preserving a community’s architectural heritage, and assistance is available to people and communities. I implore the town of Southwest Harbor to invite the Maine Downtown Network Community Program to speak with the selectmen and town leaders about downtown revitalization and preservation strategies.

With regard to 44 Shore Road, if purchased by the town, the 1878 farmhouse should be saved to meet the needs of the improved Manset Town Dock area. The house represents a simple but important part of the historic character and fabric of Southwest Harbor and should be used to cultivate the appeal of the Manset harbor. The building could be the new location of the Harbor Master’s office; there could be public bathrooms and a tourist office. The second and third floors could provide affordable year-round housing.

This 137-year-old house represents an irreplaceable link with our shared history and contributes to the character and heritage that draws visitors from near and far to our town and our harbor. The destruction of historic buildings in Southwest Harbor will reduce the town’s appeal to tourists who will choose to visit other well-preserved towns on the Maine coast instead. Each dilapidated historic building should be viewed, not as blight unworthy of investment, but as an opportunity to save and burnish the town’s heritage.

To protect and promote the economic viability of Southwest Harbor, the house at 44 Shore Road should be preserved and adaptively re-used, as should the other vulnerable historic structures in the community.

Melissa Pearsall Hirsch

Southwest Harbor

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