The pedestrian bridge over the Kennebec River near downtown Skowhegan in July 2021. As part of the long-planned Skowhegan River Park, a boulder island would be installed below the bridge, near the center of the river, to enhance the whitewater for kayakers, surfers and others. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — The Board of Selectmen’s vote Tuesday to move the proposed Skowhegan River Park to its next phase reignited a decadeslong debate about the project’s viability.

Several selectmen and town residents expressed concern about anticipated costs related to park maintenance, spurred by concerns about the potential for flood damage with December’s historic wind and rainstorm fresh in their minds.

Selectmen voted 4-1 to pass a series of motions that authorized using previously allocated funds for a final design and to open the park project to bids from contractors.

Park organizers, led by the nonprofit Main Street Skowhegan, said last week the first phase of construction could begin this summer.

Plans for the Skowhegan River Park include improved river access, whitewater paddling features and other recreation infrastructure along the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. The park, formerly known as Run of River, is expected to feature the first adjustable whitewater wave in the Northeast, which supporters have said should help Skowhegan develop into a regional outdoor destination.

Funding so far has largely come from federal grants and the town’s Sappi tax increment financing fund, which is used for economic development.


Selectman Harold Bigelow was the lone dissenter in the three votes, leading the opposition against a project that organizers say has most of the funding it needs to begin the first phase of construction and is nearing the end of a complicated permitting process.

Bigelow said his biggest concern is the anticipated cost to maintain the park and the financial demands the maintenance could place on Skowhegan taxpayers. Flooding like what followed December’s wind and rainstorm and winter ice jams could damage park infrastructure, he said.

“The benefit for this park is not going to outweigh the cost by any means,” Bigelow said. “All these grants and everything — I could just walk away from that right now and just say our taxes are not going to go up on account of this.”

Selectman Charles Robbins, who supports the River Park, said the town was originally not going to pay for maintenance, but that has changed.

Main Street Skowhegan has hired a person to manage the park, according to Kristina Cannon, the organization’s president and CEO.

Cannon and other supporters of the River Park said its design would allow for changing water levels, even if the river is at the flood stage seen in December. The design would also account for the removal of dams upstream and downstream of the Skowhegan gorge, Cannon said.


River Park organizers responded to doubts that the project will meet Skowhegan’s economic needs.

“It’s not a question of whether this is an economic driver,” said Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan resident. “It will be — it already is — an economic driver.”

A study commissioned by Main Street Skowhegan in 2016 found the park could bring millions of dollars to the region.

With the project now able to take its next step forward, the biggest hurdle appears to be final approval from more than a dozen federal agencies involved.

Organizers have had to contend with several slow — and sometimes changing — bureaucratic processes related to permitting and funding, Cannon said. As a result, construction has been pushed back, although Maine’s congressional delegation has recently helped move things along.

“This is the longest going project, as you all know, but most complicated thing that I’ve had to deal with in my life,” Cannon told the Board of Selectmen. “I wanted to see construction this fall, too, but it, unfortunately, did not happen.”

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