Harpswell Oceanic Center moves forward with advanced aquaculture system

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HARPSWELL — A locally-based team of aquaculture experts is well on its way toward converting Mitchell Field from a former fuel farm into a futuristic working waterfront.

The Harpswell Oceanic Center, as the project is known, would be a tripartite aquaculture, education and research facility, CEO Chris Heinig explained to approximately 50 town residents at the High Head Yacht Club Wednesday night.

The Center just received its first grant from the Maine Technical Institute, which will allow it to create a pilot model of an innovative no-waste aquaculture system, known as integrated multi-trophic aquaculture.

The system circulates water through various tanks containing finfish, worms, oysters and algae, each species utilizing the waste products of another. Not only can each species be harvested and sold commercially, but the worms actually act as a natural filter, enabling 90% of the water to be recycled back through the tanks.

HOC also hopes to add a visitors center and research component to its facility, and work with area universities and schools. Heinig said he envisions three buildings occupying the nine-acre portion of Mitchell Field that is zoned for commercial use, allowing plenty of space for other uses of the area.

Although numerous audience members wondered how much money the town would receive by leasing the property to the Center, Heinig was reluctant to say, citing worries that the figure could change. But he said they should expect less than the $8 million a year that the town would have received had a liquid natural gas terminal been built at Mitchell Field — something that was proposed to the town in 2004, but ultimately failed at a referendum.

As with lease revenues, Heinig didn’t give an estimate of how much money the company would make. He did say that he expected to employ somewhere around 20 people in the first stage of the build out, which would cost an estimated $10 million.

Heinig and other HOC staff first presented the idea to the Board of Selectmen in late spring, following a decision at the March 12 Town Meeting to allow the board to sign multi-year leases for Mitchell Field without Town Meeting approval.

Since then, Heinig and his board members, Harpswell residents Alan Shaver and Katherine Chatterjee, have been hard at work applying for grants, meeting with state environmental regulators and modeling what the facility would look like. If all goes well, the center could be open as early as May 2013.

But Heinig was visibly excited about the project, which he said fit in well with the character of Harpswell and would attract young people to the aging town.

“It’s an opportunity for the community to come together on a project,” he said. “It will bring the working waterfront back to Harpswell a la 21st century.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.