About six months ago, Georgetown resident Pat Burns got it in his mind that the town’s comprehensive plan, which hadn’t been updated in more than 20 years, might need re-examination. He volunteered his time to look at possible updates. His goal, he said, was to make sure that Georgetown wasn’t falling off the state radar for services like road work, but along the way he learned enough about the town’s changing demographics to get worried about the local economy. That set him off on a path he never expected; overseeing a new entity, Georgetown Aquaculture, and along with it, five new oyster farms that were seeded just this month. We called him up to talk oysters, retirees and the onion ring situation at Five Islands.

TURNAROUND IS FAIR PLAY: Burns has been a Georgetown resident for about 30 years. He and his wife Elizabeth Spaulding are both retired, she from a career in customer relations at L.L. Bean, he from what he describes as “the retail turnaround business.” Translation, he worked with companies in trouble. “The last one was Vermont Teddy Bear.” After he sold a catalog-consolidation business to Walt Disney (essentially a marketing center geared toward environmental organizations), he grew weary of commuting from Maine. “I was in a airplane two or three times a week,” he said. Making more money seemed far less important than quality of life. “So I got to retire at 52.”

(NOT SO) URBAN PLANNING: While he was exploring updating the 1993 comprehensive plan, he took a hard look at Georgetown’s demographics. The median age of the town (population 1,042 in the 2010 census) had increased by 33 percent in the last 25 years, while the number of very young residents (under age 5) had fallen off by 60 percent. “We are rapidly becoming a retirement community,” Burns said. (He’s a case in point.) Retirees are driving up the costs of housing and pricing locals out of the market. “Many who grew up here have limited means to stay in the town.” And he saw a direct link to what was happening with work in the fisheries. “It hit me right between the eyes that our marine activity has seen dramatic declines in the same time frame.” He means fisheries such as sea urchins, shrimp, clamming and ground fish; lobster is still booming. For the time being. “We all know it is just a matter of time because it is declining to the south of us.”

HELPING HAND: Understanding his own demographic, combined with issues related to climate change, are contributing to the problem, Burns wanted to do something. So he and Michael Bonney – yes, that Michael Bonney the one who, with his wife Allison Grott Bonney, recently gave $50 million to Bates College – cofounded Georgetown Aquaculture about five months ago to create ways to help locals find alternatives to traditional fisheries. Bonney spent summers in Georgetown when he was growing up and his family has a house there, and as Burns put it, “I did not have to sell hard” when he asked Bonney to join him in the venture. It wasn’t the first time the two had partnered; they helped finance Michael Gagne and his biscuit and baked goods company Gagne Foods together.

SOWING CHANGE: Burns showed up at the Georgetown Shellfish Committee meeting and floated the plan. He and Bonney would provide funds – in the form of five-year loans – to set up five farms, along with fronting the cost of the seed and help getting licensed through the state. Each farmer gets 10 traps, and the initial seeding will be 240,000 baby oysters. Next year the plan, Burns said, is to add another farm and 600,000 more seed divided among the six farms. They hope for an annual expansion after that. Oysters take between two and three years to mature, so the farmers will have time to bring product to market before starting to repay the seed money, a total of $160,000. Burns said they had no problem getting five farmers to sign up for the spots, and over the course of June and July, they had three educational sessions to get them prepared, with an instructional assist from Dana Morse, an aquaculture researcher with Maine Sea Grant who works with many farmed fish, including scallops and oysters. “That eliminates rookie mistakes.”

SHELLFISH FUTURES: Two oyster farmers are already working in the well protected Robinhood Cove, which Burns said is the best site for oyster farming in the Georgetown area. One of the farmers already up and running, Joshua Stoll, who is with the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, will let the new farmers piggyback on his website and the oysters will be marketed under the name Robinhood Cove Oysters, Burns said. “The real reason for this is so people will stay in town. The farms will provide a good living and the beginning of a whole new approach to our marine economy in Georgetown.” Georgetown Aquaculture also plans to help reseed an existing clam farm in Georgetown and look at ways to expand into scallops, quahogs, mussels and kelp, Burns said.

SPEAKING OF SEAFOOD: Burns is a fan on more than just a theoretical level. “I will eat two or three pounds of mussels, and I can eat two dozen oysters in a sitting.” Since Burns has the inside scoop on the Georgetown area, we wondered, what is his favorite dish at Five Islands Lobster Co.? “The fish sandwich is always delicious.” But is he, like other fans of the picturesque spot, mourning the lack of onion rings this summer? “You took the words right out of my mouth.” (Breaking news, as of the end of July, Five Islands had resolved the staffing problems that led to them 86-ing onion rings this summer and they are back on the menu.)

ABOUT THAT RETIREMENT: Remember how Burns supposedly retired at 52? Community activism (he’s president of the board of the Indian Point Association in Georgetown), deep dives into comprehensive plans (it looks like Georgetown will get a new one of those in the next few years) and now aquaculture; he seems pretty busy for a retired guy. He laughed. “My wife said, ‘The real question is, when are you going to re-retire?’”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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