GARDINER — When Justin Hoenke arrives in the city later this year, he would like residents to do something for him: stop in and say hi.

“I’m friendly; I’m kind,” he said. “I am really excited to get into the work and the community.”

Justin Hoenke will be Gardiner’s next library director.  Photo courtesy of Justin Hoenke

Later this year, Hoenke, 41, will start his job as the director of the Gardiner Public Library, stepping into the job that Anne Davis is retiring from after three decades with the library.

Although his transition into the job will be a change, it’s not the biggest one for Hoenke and his family, who are now in the process of packing up all their worldly goods and shipping them 9,236 miles across the international date line from New Zealand to Gardiner.

For the past two years, Hoenke has worked for the Wellington City Library as a service manager for libraries and community spaces in the northern suburbs.

“This feels like it has been a wonderful moment of time here in New Zealand,” he said. “It’s been super cool to get this opportunity, but I almost feel like I’m just coming up the road from my last job in Pennsylvania back to Maine.”

Maine was also the jumping-off point for his family when they traveled to New Zealand two years ago this month.

And when he and his family were thinking about returning to the United States, they specifically looked in New England and found the listing for the Gardiner library director position.

He said he and his family were familiar with Gardiner. When they lived in Portland, they traveled through the city when visiting family in Farmington and the Bangor areas, stopping at the A1 Diner and frequenting Water Street.

“There’s something about that street that makes you feel like it’s the best community in the world,” he said. “We always remembered that.”

Davis said finding Hoenke might not have been possible if in-person interviews had been possible. For more than 18 months, organizations, businesses and committees like the library search committee have relied on virtual platforms to meet and conduct business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m not a big Zoom fan, but everyone came to the committee in a Zoom format, so it evened the field, and it allowed my committee to look and hear what Justin was saying and not freak out because of the distance,” she said. “And with each interview, we had with him, his enthusiasm just burst out of him. That’s what Gardiner needs. I feel like I’ve done great things for Gardiner, and it’s now someone’s job to take up that baton and take it even further. This is the gentleman who will do it and do it well.”

Hoenke said he remembered Davis from his time in Portland.

“The library world is small, but she stood out as a person who did good things,” he said, noting that she had been named Maine’s 2015 Outstanding Librarian by the Maine Library Association.

What drew Hoenke back to Maine is his love of small communities where he can connect with people.

“I am used to library work where I can go out of my office or just walk down the street and talk to people about anything and everything, mostly libraries. I don’t have that opportunity here. It was one thing I really missed.”

He said he likes to connect with people, and he wasn’t able to do that in the same way in his current post as service manager for two public libraries and four community centers. Among his duties has been overseeing the operation of the Johnsonville Library at Waitohi Community Hub. In addition to a library, it also has a swimming pool, a community center, a café and a kindergarten.

Before that, Hoenke was the executive director of the Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The library is structured as a nonprofit organization, supported by donations and grants, and it was part of the Crawford County Federated Library System that encompassed nine library organizations.

Hoenke said what drew him to Gardiner’s library is that its part of the city, and it can advocate for services and the needs of residents while staying connected with the issues that concern people.

“I like the work Anne has done to get the regional structure set up and everyone working together and understanding the fees and what it takes to keep the library humming. It’s such a major landmark thing,” he said.

Hoenke also has experience as a teen librarian, and Davis said that was one of the attributes that made him stand out among applicants.

Davis said most of her focus in the past few years before the pandemic was working on ways to get teens into the library.

“We had programs where the buses would drop them off at the library, and that all went away with COVID,” Davis said. “We lack diversity in age now. We rarely have tweens and teens coming in, and that breaks my heart because we worked really hard to make this a welcoming place for them.”

“I understand there’s a new teen librarian in Gardiner, and I am really excited to work with that person to get things up and running,” Hoenke said.

Earlier this year, the Gardiner Public Library hired Jessica Betit as the teen librarian.

“We had teens coming in and playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or playing chess and having book discussions,” Davis said.

Davis, who has been the director of the Gardiner Public Library for three decades, announced her intention to retire from the library before the pandemic upended everything in Gardiner and across the world in 2020. Earlier this year, she was appointed to serve as Gardiner’s acting city manager after the departure of Christine Landes in March. She has committed to staying in that role until a permanent city manager is hired.

Hoenke’s start date is still to be determined.

Hoenke and his family — wife Haley and children Finn and Aero— are packing their belongings into a shipping crate to be moved to the United States, and they’re flying to Boston, after which they will stay with family and celebrate their first American Thanksgiving in two years.

The city is not paying relocation fees for Hoenke. His starting salary will be $65,000.

The Hoenkes have rented an apartment in Gardiner and are looking forward to getting settled and meeting people, he said.

Davis said she’s happy she’ll be with the city after Hoenke starts to be able to help out when issues arise with the building or library administration.

“I am leaving him with a fairly major project,” she said. “That will be the repointing of our bricks on the outside facade. It’s not a stability issue, it’s an esthetic issue. Honestly, the building will stand for 200 more years, and that makes me feel really good.”

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