Press Herald Online

Friday, December 5, 1997

Island community builds on its strength

At left:Construction volunteer Jimmy Stewart and Beth Dyer, administrative director, smooth out the plans for Chebeague Island's new recreation center, which will have a gymnasium, fitness room, teen center and outdoor pool.

At right: Fund-raiser Robert White holds a sample of the hardwood floor for Chebeague Island's new recreation center. The wood was obtained at a savings by the community group from a manufacturer new to the state.

Staff photos by Doug Jones

By Peter Pochna
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
GREAT CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - This small island community does something most communities are incapable of doing. It builds big public buildings on its own, without local, state or federal tax dollars.

In about a month it plans to open a $1 million recreation center, built mostly with gifts of money and services from the island's 325 year-round residents and 1,500 summertime residents.

Lobstermen, carpenters and retirees have made individual donations of $1,000 and more, despite having little disposable income. Wealthy summertime residents have made five-figure donations to help preserve a community that their families have loved for generations.

And dozens of volunteers have spent many long hours in the past six months cutting trees, removing stumps and digging the foundation for the 6,600-square-foot building.

''We're quite a bit different from people on the mainland,'' said Wayne Dyer, a contractor on the island who has donated about $7,000 worth of time and materials. ''Everybody chips in, because we all know each other. It's like a big family.''

In 1990, islanders built a $350,000 library. This spring work will begin on a $450,000 elderly care home. Like the recreation center, those projects are community efforts. For the elderly care home, a summertime resident donated a house worth about $250,000.

''The fisherman's ethic thrives here,'' said the Rev. Robert Leon, pastor of the island's church. ''It says government doesn't do things for you, it does things to you.''

One reason that ethic thrives is that islanders have learned not to expect help from government.

The 4.5-mile-by-1.5-mile island is part of the town of Cumberland. The town will pay for the operating costs of the recreation center, as it does for the island's library. But Cumberland has been reluctant to pay for construction projects on the island, primarily because they serve such a small percentage of the town's population.

The island community wants a recreation center to provide activities for its children. Islanders worry that without activities, their children will turn to drugs and alcohol.

Their fears were reinforced this summer when a young man left a bar on the island and drove his car into a telephone pole. A 21-year-old woman who was in the passenger seat was killed.

Islanders also worry that without activities for children, families will leave Chebeague and the community will wither away.

''Anything we can do to keep the children busy and on the island will be good for everybody,'' said Mabel Doughty, who has lived on Chebeague for 50 of her 75 years and is married to a retired lobsterman.

Doughty and her husband were cited by fund-raisers as having donated generously to the recreation center.

When asked if she'd say how much they gave, she said, ''absolutely not.'' When asked if she'd say why they gave generously, she said, ''It's important for us to be able to do things on our own and not have to rely on anybody.''

The recreation center is on two acres next to the island school. It will include a gymnasium for basketball, volleyball and other activities, a fitness room with exercise machines, a teen center that will include a pool table and pinball machines, a crafts center and an outdoor swimming pool.

Construction began in August and is scheduled to be completed in early January.

Eddie Hall, the site supervisor for the project contractor, said coordinating all the volunteer work with the paid work has been challenging, but refreshing.

''I've been doing construction for 20 years,'' he said. ''And I don't know if there's ever been a project like this one.''

One of the most valuable volunteers has been Jim Stewart, who lives in Portland and has a house on Chebeague that he visits throughout the year.

He is a businessman who owns several gas stations and convenience stores in this area. Over the past year, he has chosen to spend much of his free time rumbling around the construction site on excavating equipment that he owns.

He has cleared trees, smoothed the parking area and excavated the foundation. And he dug the hole for the 75-foot-by-35-foot pool on his own.

He estimates that all his work was probably worth about $60,000. But he adds that it was more fun than work.

''It is a beautiful, beautiful island, and the beauty of it is the variety of people who live there,'' Stewart said. ''This building is a monument to the spirit of island living.''

The fund-raising effort is still $150,000 short of its goal. But the project has received a loan that ensures the recreation center's doors will open in January, even if the fund-raising is not complete.

Robert White, who is helping to coordinate the fund-raising, said he's confident that the rest of the money will come in soon. He said that so far the money has come almost entirely from individuals, and that fund-raisers now will start trying to get support from corporations.

''The fact that we've gotten this far on individual donations is amazing,'' White said. ''Chebeaguers believe in their community and they dig deep to support it.''

For links to ferry schedules and stories of island life, see the Islands section of Casco Bay Online.

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