The Town Government, Cambridge, ME

The one appointment I had set before I started my drive to Cambridge, Maine was with the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Michael (Mike) Watson.  We had spoken very briefly by phone, and even that one-minute conversation allowed him to share that there is little to visit in the town.  Not that this information discouraged me.

Town OfficeI entered the Town Office and met Donna, the Town Clerk, who had answered the phone when I called.  Mike invited Second Selectman, Ronald (Ron) Strouse, to join us.  Donna was there for the start of the conversation, too.

First, we established the long lineage of Mike’s and Donna’s families in Cambridge.  Mike said he is the sixth generation to live there.  Donna said her great-great-grandparents were among those who founded the town in the 1800s.

(A side-note that Maine was part of Massachusetts from the 1650s to 1820, when it was finally established as a separate state.  As for Cambridge, there’s a tale that a group of folks gathered to discuss a name for the new town, which would break away from Ripley.  A young girl had been reading a book about England, and she suggested Cambridge as the name.  “And that’s how it come about,” Mike said.)

On the other side, in terms of Cambridge longevity, was Ron, who, like me, is from Long Island, NY.  He was looking for a lifestyle change — tired of the traffic (especially given that his work required a lot of driving) and he also felt that New York State made it difficult for him to do things he wanted to, such as hunting.  He found the environment he was looking for in Cambridge, where he already owned a camp (roughly translatable to vacation home).  Though he has been in Cambridge since 1993, he said that, having moved there as an adult, “I’ll never be a Mainer.  I’ll always be a flatlander.”

Cambridge ME town government
From left: Cambridge Tax Collector Kathryn Burdin; Second Selectman Ronald Strouse; Town Clerk Donna Sawyer; Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Michael R. Watson.

We talked a little about the remote location of Cambridge.  I had observed that the drive into town — quite relaxing on a sunny day — must be a challenge at night or after a snowfall.  Ron and Mike acknowledged that’s true, but pointed to destinations within half an hour that make it worth the drive.  Both Skowhegan and Newport have Walmart stores and Dexter has a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Some of those towns have a larger population base; for example, neighboring St. Albans has nearly 2,000 people, about the same as Cambridge, NY.

Cambridge receives some of its services from outside.  There’s no local police force, but the Somerset County Sheriff and the State Police supply law-enforcement support.  For schooling, children attend a regional school in Guilford (Piscataquis Community Elementary School and High School) as part of Maine School Administrative District #4.   The town has its own volunteer fire department.

Despite the limited official resources in Cambridge, Mike and Ron made clear that there’s an abundance of support from the townsfolk for each other.  Ron said, “People help each other.  If someone has a problem, everybody gets together to help them.”  Mike added, People here like to talk.  Sometimes it’s gossip, but sometimes it’s helpful.”  He was not impressed by a trip to New York City, where he observed that “people don’t talk to each other.”

Mike describes Cambridge as beyond rural.  “It’s country,” with about 100 households.  “In country, there are no secrets.”  And Ron pointed out that new housing construction needs to be placed on plots of at least four acres.

In our wide-ranging conversation, I asked Mike and Ron if the opioid crisis has touched Cambridge.  Ron confirmed that it’s a “serious issue” and Mike noted the town’s particular challenge that it doesn’t have the police or medical resources to deal with an overdose.  They have also been thinking about Maine’s legalization of recreational marijuana, which took effect in June.  While about 15 towns or cities quickly “opted in” to allow the sale of marijuana, Cambridge has already enacted an ordinance to opt out, even though there would be financial benefit through the sales tax to allowing a dispensary.  Ron said they would “let the other towns deal with it.”

I asked Ron and Mike what’s going well in Cambridge now.  Mike said that they’re holding property taxes low, getting some roads fixed, and keeping the fire department.  Ron mentioned that they’re bringing high-speed internet into town.  Lack of connectivity is a problem, just as it was in Cambridge, NY.  They’re also trying to maintain the population of the town, hoping people will move in and buy the properties that are available.  And then they hope the new residents will be involved citizens.  Ron said, “We need people to step up to the plate.”

Mike and Ron were extremely generous with their time, and I’ll be back soon with notes from the rest of our conversation.

Last: while Cambridge, MA residents call ourselves “Cantabridgians,” and Cambridge, NY refers to “villagers,” those in Cambridge, ME simply go by “Mainers.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
Ron: A very small private community that looks out for each other.  Quality of life is superior here, I think, and everybody gets along and, like I said, they look after each other.  Just a good good town to live in.

Mike: I think it’s a nice little community.  Been here a long time and it’s gonna be here for a long time afterwards.

Last notes on village government

Village of Cambridge signDuring my Cambridge, NY visit, I stopped by to chat with Mayor Carman Bogle, which gave me a chance to better understand the issues she had identified in her written Q&A.

First, some detail regarding her comment that wastewater infrastructure is acting as a drag on development.  She explained to me that homes and commercial buildings all currently rely on septic systems that present a hard limit on how many people can be based on a site.  But starting from scratch to create a new sewer system is a major lift for a small village and will almost surely require support from the towns, county, and /or state.  There’s no plan yet for how to get it done, but people are thinking about it.  The housing stock is there, but the physical restrictions on business expansion limits potential job creation.

The village budget is currently at $1.2 million and it funds the police and fire departments (though the fire fighters are volunteers), DPW, a one-room court that considers both civil and criminal cases, a youth department, and the library.

Mayor Bogle also provided some detail on the village’s electoral system.  The candidates in local elections do not affiliate with the national political parties for their run.  Instead, they create local parties that reflect the community.  Mayor Bogle’s party is “Community Voices of Cambridge,” and she ran unopposed in the most recent election in March 2019.  In addition to the mayor, there’s an assistant mayor and trustees.

Last, Mayor Bogle answered a question on the mind of some blog readers.  Residents of Cambridge, NY — unlike those in Cambridge, MA and Cambridge, UK — do not refer to themselves as Cantabrigians.  They’re “The Villagers,” instead.

Mayor Carman Bogle reflects on Cambridge, NY

While I travel to Cambridge, NY, I’d like to share this Q&A with Mayor Carman Bogle, who took office in April 2015, following the village’s March election. 

I should note that Mayor Bogle was extremely generous in answering a long list of questions that I have since learned was simply too long.  But her kind response made me think that I might be onto something with this blog — that there is a lot to learn from each other. I’m excited to visit her village and to meet her this afternoon.

Carman Bogle
Mayor Bogle (waving from the front of the cart). Photo credit: Eric Fellows

How would you describe Cambridge?
The village of Cambridge is a charming walkable community with a population of about 2,000 people. Most properties are historic with a mix of Victorian and Colonial homes and businesses.

Because of close proximity and a smaller population, Cambridge is a close-knit community. Everybody knows their neighbors and fellow community members. People are always ready to help each other, as well as welcome new people to the community. Smiles and friendly waves of hello are readily available as you walk down Main Street. There is no shortage of those willing to volunteer to make and keep Cambridge a warm inviting place where people want to raise their families.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Challenges facing Cambridge right now are a lack of infrastructure and economic development, particularly with regard to wastewater infrastructure. This has deeply impacted business development since property sizes are small and too close together to meet standards. Jobs are hard to come by in Cambridge.

What are one or two national issues that particularly affect Cambridge now?
I would say a national issue affecting Cambridge as of late has been the negativity that we see displayed through the media and social media, and the overall divide that seems to be developing nationally. While we are close-knit, there have been times when attitudes and treatment of each other have not reflected our local core values. We often need to remind ourselves that we are friends and neighbors, and ultimately we care about each other more than our opinions.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what concerns you most?
What has me most concerned for the future we leave for our children is that the economic conditions will leave them with no option but to leave Cambridge.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what leaves you feeling most hopeful?
What leaves me most hopeful when I think of the future we are leaving our children is that this is always home. There is always someone here who cares about you and wants to see you succeed in life. The feeling of community and belonging has been instilled in our children, and I hope they pass that on to their children.

From the Cambridge, MA mayor’s viewpoint

Marc McGovernMy goal for Our Cambridge is to include many voices and perspectives, and I’ll be reaching out to community leaders to describe the town or city they lead. 

Cambridge, MA’s mayor, Marc McGovern, has lifelong Cambridge roots.  He served four two-year terms on the School Committee (elected) before being elected to a seat on the City Council in 2013.  Following a vote by the City Council, he assumed the position of mayor in January 2018.  In this Q&A, he shares his perspective on the city.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is a diverse community dedicated to ensuring that all of its residents live in a safe and thriving city. We are home to two of the world’s best universities and the greatest concentration of biotech companies in the world. But there is another story. Cambridge has a higher poverty rate than the state average. 50% of our public school children live in affordable housing, and we have over 500 homeless on our streets every night. So, although one story of our city is of increased prosperity, another story is that many in our community are not accessing that prosperity.

What is going right in Cambridge?
Cambridge has a strong commercial tax base that allows us to do things that other communities can’t. For example, due to our AAA bond rating, we are allowed to borrow money at very low interest. That is allowing us to build three new, net-zero public schools at a cost of half a billion dollars, without raising residential property taxes. We are also investing in climate resiliency, infrastructure, public safety and our public schools at very high amounts. Although we still have challenges to overcome, the quality of life in Cambridge is very good.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Our biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing. With Cambridge being such a desirable place to live and having such a strong job market, people are moving to Cambridge in droves. Because those moving here are being paid higher salaries, they are able to pay more for rental housing and home ownership, driving up prices. The result has been that many moderate and middle income residents, those who earn too much to qualify for subsidies, but not enough to pay market rent, are being forced out of the city.

What concerns you about the Cambridge that our children will inherit?
As someone who has grown up in Cambridge and is raising my children here, I have seen our city go through many changes. Most of those changes have been positive, but some have not. The loss of middle income residents and the challenges of maintaining our diversity is a serious concern. In addition, on a wider scale, I am deeply concerned about climate change and resiliency and what the world will look like for the next generation.