'Why not here?' Columbia Falls weighs plans for world's largest flagpole
It's not easy to get to the site of the future Flagpole of Freedom, the massive veterans memorial park that Morrill Worcester and his sons have spent more than a decade dreaming up in one of Maine's poorest counties, where the median household income is about $44,000.
Son Rob Worcester, who's managing the project, navigates his pickup through winding roads on his family's sprawling property in Centerville, past rolling blueberry fields and forest.
He stops at a chain-link fence dividing a network of rough dirt paths just wide enough for his truck to head deeper into the woods.
He then pulls into a small clearing, steps into an off-road vehicle and maneuvers it up rough terrain. There are moose tracks in the dirt.
"That's the other thing that's kind of neat," Worcester said on a warm afternoon in late June. "There's going to be a lot of people here, but it's so spread out. And I think we can kind of work with the environment, and I think people will come here and see moose while they're here."
It's here, at the top of this hill, where the Worcesters envision a flagpole slightly taller than the Empire State Building at 1,461 feet. The flag itself will be the size of one-and-a-half football fields, the largest ever flown.
Visitors could take a series of elevators to two observation decks. At the top, they'll have panoramic views of Acadia National Park, Mount Katahdin and even Nova Scotia, Worcester said.
"This area is in the flight path to Europe," he said. "We wanted this giant symbol of freedom for people that are coming here by plane... this is the first thing you see when you come over the States. And when people are being deployed, it will be the last thing you see and the first thing you see when you come back from your deployment."
The massive project calls for more than a flagpole. It would also include 55 remembrance walls with the names of roughly 24 million deceased U.S. veterans from the last 250 years.
Six miles of gondolas would take visitors to hiking trails, immersive history exhibits, a 4D theater, restaurants and retail spaces.
The first phase carries a price tag of about $1 billion, and the entire project may cost more than $2 billion. The founders plan to fund the project through individual contributions and corporate sponsorships, and maybe a deal with a large company for the exclusive naming rights to the entire park, similar to a stadium.
"It's like putting your name on Mount Rushmore," Worcester said. "It's an opportunity that's kind of unique."
It's a for-profit venture, and Worcester said he's heard the criticism that the money could be better spent on specific veterans causes. But he said the founders didn't want to compete with other non-profits for donations, and the family will instead send a portion of the park's earnings to veterans organizations.
"Considering what we're trying to do and the scale of this, $1 billion is a lot of money, but I think it's a deal," Worcester said.
The Worcesters want the first phase up and running by the nation's 250th birthday on July 4, 2026. But how quickly it's developed may be up to the small town of Columbia Falls.
Columbia Falls considers annexation
Earlier this spring, the Maine Legislature quietly passed a bill authorizing the transfer of more than 10,000 acres of Worcester property in unorganized territory to Columbia Falls, pending a referendum by the town's residents to annex the land.
Without annexation, the family would have to apply for permits through Maine's Land Use Planning Commission to build the park, a process that attorneys have said could take several years.
Annexation, however, would give Columbia Falls oversight of the project, though the founders will also need permits and approval from several state agencies.
"I can't begin to tell you how just massive this, the amount of work that needs to be done on behalf of the town in order for the town to be prepared for some project of this magnitude," said Roger Huber, an attorney with Farrell, Rosenblatt and Russell in Bangor.
Huber is helping the town of Columbia Falls understand the annexation process and the project itself, and he's assembling a team of land use planning experts and more attorneys who will help the town study the project's impacts.
The Worcesters say once the park is built, it believes it will bring more than 8,000 jobs to the region, which would staff both the park and the new hotels, restaurants and public works facilities that will need to be built to support the flagpole project.
The region will also need to build more housing and expand local schools and roads to accommodate more people.
"Good. I hope so. I mean that's the point," said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commissioners. "People say it's going to change who we are. Well yes, maybe it'll change us back into who we once were."
Gardner acknowledges the flagpole project will generate some challenges for the region, but he said the county wants to build an economy around the park, and he believes the infrastructure will come in time.
'The size of Disney World'
At a meeting late last month, about 40-to-50 people gathered at the Columbia Falls town hall to hear more about the flagpole project.
Like Gardner, some residents said they welcome the development as a way to bring much-needed economic opportunities to their families. But others, like Columbia Falls resident Roberta Hammond, are not on board.
"We have wonderful memorials in Washington, D.C. for our veterans," she said at a June 23 meeting. "I just hate to see the treasure that we have in Washington County lost, because we'll never get it back again. If we wanted to live in Bar Harbor, we would live in Bar Harbor. We don't want to live in Bar Harbor."
With several thousand new jobs anticipated, the project is drawing comparisons to a larger destination.
"This is going to be the size of Disney World, you know," another person said. "I want to know if you have the expertise to study this and do the work. Could you build Disney World?"
A project of this size and scope could be unprecedented for Maine, Huber, the attorney for Columbia Falls, said. And it'll be expensive, though he said the Worcesters have agreed to cover the town's planning costs.
While Rob Worcester acknowledges the plans are ambitious, he believes they're realistic, even in a place where change is often a tough sell.
"It's potentially one of the most patriotic destinations that exists in the country, once completed," Worcester said. "It's going to be in phases. This type of size of development happens everywhere else in the country, so why not here?"
Columbia Falls town selectman say they won't schedule a vote on annexation until they've gathered enough information to satisfy local residents.
The Worcesters are now holding biweekly forums to share information with residents, and the founders have said they want to give the town time to digest the project.
And Tim Pease, an attorney for Rudman Winchell who's representing the Worcesters, believes the town will have enough details to act on annexation soon enough.
The family is prepared to move forward with the project, with or without annexation, he said.