The best laid plans, including business plans, sometimes have to be put aside or dramatically revised in the face of extraordinary circumstances. The Friends of The Boat School have encountered significant challenges to their ability to operate the school because of the lawsuit brought against the City of Eastport by two Eastport residents for its sale of the property where the school is located to First Perry Realty. As a part of the sale and purchase agreement, First Perry Realty gave about half the Deep Cove Road property to the nonprofit Friends for the sum of one dollar.
"They have a good point," says Friends Board President Tom Ries of the plaintiffs. "But I believe it [the lawsuit] is wrong from reading the city charter." The lawsuit contends, among a number of points, that the city sold the property without following proper procedure and seeks to nullify the deed.
The eight‑member board of directors of the Friends met recently and reconfirmed their commitment to their mission to support The Boat School. They are Tom and Jean Ries, Vic and Rhonda Voisine, Meg McGarvey, Dean Pike, Deb Train and Bill Rowley. "We all made a commitment -- it's one we believe in, for the city, for Maine," says Jean Ries. "We didn't buy the property to make money, we did it to preserve The Boat School," adds her husband, Tom.
When the lawsuit first came to light the Friends consulted two attorneys. "They gave us the same advice, which was that it should be over quick and we should have no problems with it," Tom says. But one of the problems, he notes, is that one of the judges in Machias has since retired, leaving a backlog of civil cases to be heard because felony cases must be heard first.
"I can't believe we're fighting ourselves," Tom says of the lawsuit. "I want what's right for everyone, but it may mean that the school goes away." He explains, "If the city loses, it would turn into a giant circle because we didn't get it [The Boat School] from the city, we got it from First Perry Realty. The ramifications are huge. It could bankrupt the city." He adds that lawsuits and countersuits are a possibility.
But even if the city wins the lawsuit, the problems that it has created for the Friends may make it impossible for the school to recover if waiting for the summary judgment or a trial date stretches out for months.
The board president outlines the problems the board and staff have encountered because of the lawsuit. First and foremost, he says, is the inability to attract funders who had originally expressed an interest in supporting their efforts. Because the property is encumbered by the lawsuit, banks, foundations, government grantors and lenders and individual supporters cannot provide funding. "They will not give a grant to an entity named in a lawsuit with the possibility, no matter how unlikely, of losing the property," he explains.
Credit is not available for supplies or for buying the materials needed to run the school. "Cash flow is not enough to afford these items essential for the instruction and operation of the facility," Tom explains. Long-deferred maintenance is a big issue, with a heating system that is grossly inefficient, doors and windows that need to be replaced for energy efficiency and an electrical system once necessary for heavy industrial use when the facility was a pearlescence plant costing them over $1,000 per month for "stand‑by" electricity. The situation is ludicrous, they note, but to change it will require substantial funds because Bangor Hydro requires the replacement of the electrical transformers located outside of the facility.
The second issue is staffing and student recruitment. "Because of the financial difficulties, our director and administrative assistant have had to leave. Our financial situation has cancelled out our boat school staff," says Tom. "Bret [Blanchard] worked so hard. There was nothing he didn't do," adds Jean of the former director.
The current Boat School staff are teaching mini‑courses, which are going well, but it's not enough to keep staff members on until the lawsuit is resolved. "We've told them that the jobs that we thought were there are not because of the lawsuit. There was a staff of six to seven. The school will produce jobs, but the lawsuit has reduced the number of jobs," Tom notes.
They have not been able to recruit students either because, as Tom explains, they cannot run the school with the current situation continuing. "We have one student and three 'hanging.' We're probably going to have to tell them that we can't do it."
For the immediate future the Friends intend to carry the mini‑courses through the fall. They plan to heat the office and bio‑garage space, which has tenants. "The big boat shop building will close down for the winter," Tom says. The travel lift will stay open. "We're going to try to hang on. We'll do our best," he adds. "We thought that we had a good business plan and that it would work. Now we're re‑looking at it." In the meantime, the Friends are trying to gather alumni contact information so that they can reach out to them for help. "Whether it's financial or to lend a hand painting a room -- anything we can do to keep from spending money," says Jean. In the worst-case scenario, they explain that in their original business plan they spelled out what they would do in the event the school closes. "If The Boat School goes away, our mission in life would disappear," says Tom. "We could do two options, we could sell and donate the proceeds to another nonprofit entity or we could put it into a scholarship fund" that would be used for area residents who wish to pursue a marine trades education.
The Friends may be reached at 853‑0990 or by e-mail at <email@example.com>.