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The Economic Impact of Maine's Working Waterfronts

Nate Gray


Most American cities are located on a body of waterfront. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a major American city that is not located along a significant body of water; according to the US Census, only six of the largest 75 cities in the United States are so located (Breen and Rigby 1994, 11).[i] It is not hard to determine why many cities developed along waterfronts and bodies of water. Waterfronts provide access to trade, marine resources, and, often, waterways into the interior country, thus a route for trading goods and services with the hinterland. Today, waterfronts remain a central part of city's economy.

Maine's economic vitality is particularly reliant upon maintaining and encouraging working waterfronts. Maine's working waterfronts provide a workplace for fisherman and the sectors associated with the fishing industry. Additionally, Maine's tourist economy relies upon the iconic image of fisherman plying the oceans for the living. Tourist and place marking firms consistently uses this image in literature. While working waterfronts play a large role in the state's economy, a very small portion of the coast is used are working waterfronts. In fact, research has shown that working waterfronts comprise less than 1% of the state's coastline (Colgan 2004, 1). Unfortunately, throughout coastal Maine, these precious few working waterfronts are under constant threat.

This handbook entry focuses on the economic impact of Maine's working waterfronts. [ii] The first section attempts to provide a precise definition for a working waterfront. The following section examines economic data about working waterfront's contribution to Maine's economy. The final sections address the threats that residential development poses and how communities can develop a policy response that could conserve their working waterfronts.

What is a "working" waterfront?

Maine's coast stretches the length of the state for close to 3,500 miles, reaching from Kittery at the southern end to Eastport. Working waterfronts constitute only 25 of those 3,500 miles, less than 1% of the total length (Maine State Planning Office 2000). But what, exactly, is a working waterfront? A precise definition has not been widely accepted by planners, economists or politicians. Clogan (2004) provides a practical definition: Working waterfronts are those portions of the shore used to support commercial activities such as fishing, marinas, boat building and repair. This definition focuses on the waterfront itself, and as a result is too geographically limited. Jim Connor, planner for the Maine State Planning Office's Coastal Program, provides a more useful and complete explanation of a working waterfront. He explains that a working waterfront consists of the sites or facilities providing the physical access to the sea·then the infrastructure of facilities and services needed to support commercial uses·and finally other facilities and services that are needed, but do not need to occur at the waters edge (quoted in Snyder 2003).

Connor's definition is useful for a number of reasons. First, he identifies that working waterfronts include both the areas directly on the water, but also the sectors removed from the shoreline. This is a very important consideration, and one not typically made and we see in the Colgan (2004) definition. Without industrial sectors not directly tied to the waterfront, such as boat builders, repair facilities, ice makers needed for food storage, and many others, Maine's maritime industries would flounder. Furthermore, Connor's distinction accurately reflects a working waterfront's economic impact by including these industries. In turn this helps explains maritime industries high multiplier as we will see later in the handbook.

The Economic Impacts of Maine's Working Waterfronts

Working waterfronts support a dynamic maritime industry that contributes a significant amount to Maine's economy. In 2002, 10,300 commercial fishermen were directly employed on fishing vessels, but an additional 26,000 jobs were created in industries associated with commercial fishing (Sheehan and Cowperthwaite 2002, 4). Connor's definition helps to explain this high multiplier effect. Thus, a full understanding of a working waterfront's impact must include the sectors associated with the maritime industries as in Colgan's definition, but also those not along the shore as Connor rightfully points out.

Cluster analysis provides another attempt to fully grasp the maritime industries impact on the state's economy. An economic cluster consists of geographic concentrations of inter-related (sometimes competing, sometimes collaborating) industries or firms, and their related supplier network. [iii] According to the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness Maine's Fishing and Fishing products cluster is estimated to have the 11th highest total employment with the nation. This represents 2.5% share of total national employment within this industry.

In addition to these significant employment figures, working waterfronts contribute a large amount of money to Maine's economy. In 2002, working waterfronts supported maritime industries that directly contributed $860 million dollars to the state's economy (Sheehan and Cowperthwaite 2002, 4). During the following year, the National Oceans Economics Project estimated that living resources industries alone contributed approximately $143 million to the state's gross product (National Oceans Economics Project). Living resources industries consist just of extractive fishing industries, such as fin or shell fishing, but non- extractive industries and industries not along the shore also contribute a large amount to the state's economy. Sabre Yachts and Hinckley boat builders are two examples of firms without direct water access, yet fall within Connor's definition of contributing to the working waterfront economy. Overall the boat building industry, of which Sabre Yachts and Hinckley boat are a part of, directly contributes $80.7 million to Maine's gross state product (Colgan 2004, 7). To gauge the full impact, though, we must also consider the indirect impact that working waterfronts have on the state's economy.

Like the direct impact, working waterfront's indirect impact on the state's economy stretches into the hundreds of millions of dollars. For instance, the boat building industry alone indirectly contributed $145.4 million (Ibid). The seafood processing and marina sectors are two more examples. During 2001, the seafood processing and marinas directly contributed $51 and $27.2 million dollars, respectively, to Maine's gross state product. Yet, these two industries alone created a $216 million multiplier effect (Ibid 6). Overall, working waterfront's indirect impact on the state's economy was $361 million (Colgan 2004)

Employment and multiplier data are useful measures, but they do not tell the fully illustrate the importance of working waterfronts and maritime industries. For many of the small towns dotted along Maine's coast, maritime industries often provide the only source employment (Brewer and Colbeth 2004, 4). In many of these communities over half of the population is directly employed in the industries while the remaining segment of the working population's employment is indirectly related (Ibid). Without working waterfronts, the maritime industries within those communities would not be viable, and these communities could not survive. One is not possible without the other.

Threats to Maine's Working Waterfronts

Regardless of their importance to the state's economy and image or to small town viability, Maine's working waterfronts are threatened. Yet while the threat to working waterfronts is severe, this is not a new issue. For the past twenty years, Maine's working waterfronts have faced numerous challenges. Portland is the most notable example, but, unfortunately, not the only one (Breen and Rigby 1985, 6- 7). Coastal communities continue to respond to similar threats with inventive policy responses. This section will outline the most pressing issues facing Maine's working waterfronts face as well as policy recommendations that could address those threats.

During recent years, residential development throughout coastal Maine has posed the most serious threat to working waterfronts. Private housing development has grown very rapidly within coastal Maine, particularly second home development, and has placed a strain on traditional water access for Maine's fisherman. In many coastal communities, fishermen typically access the waterfront via private residences or facilities. In fact, according to a Coastal Enterprises, Inc. study (2002) 40% of access is provided by private residences. Recent home development threatens this pattern. Colgan (2004) found that in 2001 in a sample of 78 coastal towns, 2137 housing permits were issued. Residential development along the waterfront is not a problem in and of itself; rather increased residential development creates a number of acute problems.

Associated with new development has been a change in the constituency that defines coastal Maine. In some coastal communities, particularly small communities, the number of housing units increased almost 33% between the 1990 and 2000 census (Sheehan and Cowperthwaite 2004, 30). Increased growth typically also spurs a change within a community about the image of the waterfront. No longer is the waterfront a place of business or production, but instead a serene space primarily used for recreation or relaxation. Fishermen are quick to note that with the change new coastal property owners don't understand the historical rights that people have to access the water (Ibid, 2). This quote illustrates how development creates a very pressing problem. Since private residences provide a large percentage of waterfront access, when traditional access points are threatened so to is a community's working waterfront and the maritime industries it supports. New property owners may not be so amenable to a fisherman using their driveway or piers, or they may not like a fishing boat idling near their dock before sunup.

The loss of private access and piers creates a number of other problems. As private waterfront access declines, coastal towns begin to feel a pressure to build a town/ public pier. These public wharves are stuck in a precarious position. Ostensibly created for the entire public's use, public piers must provide access for both commercial and recreational uses, a very difficult act indeed. In turn, increased pier use places a strain the limited available parking near the waterfront. And according to Sheehan and Cowperthwaite, Unless you can park your truck (near the water), access means nothing (Sheehan and Cowperthwaite 2004, 2). Each of these problems begins with the growing demand for coastal residential property and the subsequent effect on waterfront access. Addressing these problems and preserving working waterfront's viability does not require drastic measures such as a freeze on real estate sales, but instead sensible planning and development. The following section outlines effective measures that communities have undertaken to preserve their working waterfronts and the maritime industries that they nurture.

Policy Responses

Maine's coastal communities typically employ two different approaches when attempting to preserve and bolster their working waterfronts. For many communities, a comprehensive plan is a logical first place to begin because the plan provides an effective tool when addressing residential and commercial development. In fact, in Sheehan and Cowperthwaite (2004) study 84% of the towns sampled had a comprehensive plan. Comprehensive plans also provide coastal communities an opportunity to codify how they value their waterfront. If the community values waterfront access and working waterfronts, the plan will reflect this. A comprehensive plan alone will not guarantee waterfront access or preserving a portion of the waterfront for marine uses. Taking this step requires changes to a city or town's zoning ordinances.

The majority of Maine's communities use zoning regulations, in various forms, to protect working waterfronts. 72% of towns have some type of maritime use district for their waterfronts (Sheehan and Cowperthwaite 2004, 9). Exclusive waterfront access or working waterfront regulations are the most stringent example of maritime use zoning regulation, and not surprisingly, few towns employee these type of measures; only 24% of the towns within Sheehan and Cowperthwaite's sample. Importantly, just providing amendable zoning laws is not enough; 11 of 18 towns within in Maine with an exclusive waterfront zone are still concerned about losing waterfront access or land (Ibid, 10). Coastal towns have found that additional steps beyond just creating a comprehensive need to be taken to preserve working waterfronts.

That needed step and what exactly it entails remain unclear. Many believe that in addition to developmental pressures an archaic tax code exerts tremendous pressure on working waterfronts by taxing land used by the maritime industries at its highest and best use, which typically is as residential property. In turn this increases the land's value and property taxes to a point that is not sustainable for many fishermen. Reforming Maine's tax code certainly would provide fisherman and working waterfronts with needed fiscal relief, but this will not happen in the near future. Instead, coastal towns must continue to create comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances that protect working waterfronts to the greatest extent that is currently possible. As we have seen this would help to protect a dynamic part of Maine's economy and its image.


Breen, Ann and Rigby, Dick. June 1985. SOS for the Working Waterfront. Planning. 51 (6): 6- 12

Brewer, Jennifer and Colbeth, Nancy. (October 2005). Beals Island and Jonesport, Maine: 2004 Community Panel Report. MIT Seagrant Program. Retrieved December 2nd, 2005, from

Colgan, Charles S. (February 2004). The Contribution of Working Waterfronts to the Maine Economy. Augusta, Maine: Maine's Working Waterfront Coalition.

National Oceans Economics Program. Market Values Database. Retrieved November 25, 2005, from

Sheehan, Elizabeth and Cowperthwaite, Hugh. (December 2002). Preserving Commercial Fishing Access: A Study of Working Waterfronts in 25 Maine Communities. Wiscasset, Maine: Coastal Enterprises, Inc.

Snyder, Robert. (August 2003). Whose working waterfront is it? The Working Waterfront. Retrieved December 1st, 2005, from

[i] The six are: Atlanta, GA; Tucson, AZ; Charlotte, NC; Anaheim and Santa Ana, CA; and, Lexington, KY.

[ii] Please see Marshall (2001) for a fuller treatment of recent waterfront design solutions throughout the world. This edited volume deals in depth with how the relationship between cities and their waterfronts have changed. Additional sources discuss waterfront redevelopment throughout the US and world and include Torre (1989), White et al. (1993), Breen and Rigby (1994), and Breen and Rigby (1996).

[iii] Please see Marisa McNee's handbook entry for a thorough analysis and explanation of cluster industries and definitions. Link: