Does Boothbay Have a Vodka Problem?

Booze king Paul Coulombe wants to upgrade a coastal Maine town into a luxury destination. He says he just wants to save a dying hamlet. But his neighbors think he’s putting them on the road to ruin.

Part of the problem is that Boothbay is stuck in touristic no man’s land. Unlike Kennebunkport to the south, and Camden and Rockport to the north, Boothbay isn’t situated directly off the vital north-south artery that is Route 1. And unlike Bar Harbor, there isn’t a breathtaking national park named Acadia right next door. Which helps explain why Boothbay proper, a couple of miles north of the ocean, couldn’t be less quaint. The busiest part of the area is basically a strip mall across the street from a Hannaford; one of the more popular breakfast joints is located at a Sunoco gas station.

Its neighboring communities aren’t much better off. Directly south of Boothbay is touristy, waterfront Boothbay Harbor, where the vibe in summer is much more saltwater taffy. Off-season, though, the place is dead. My first night in Boothbay Harbor, I make the mistake of walking into a restaurant called McSeagull’s after 9 p.m., only to find the kitchen closed. I plead ignorance, telling the bartender I’m not a local. “I know,” he says. “I’ve never seen you before.” Located just south of Boothbay Harbor, Southport Island, where Coulombe lives, is almost completely residential. (Ecologist and author Rachel Carson also lived in Southport.) Until the late 19th century, all three areas, which together total some 6,000 permanent residents, were considered part of Boothbay.

Lincoln County, where Boothbay Harbor is situated, has a higher unemployment rate than nearly all of the counties adjacent to it. It’s also home to the oldest population in the state, which, considering Maine also boasts the highest median age of any state in the country, means it’s really quite ancient. After decades of economic lethargy, Lincoln County has recently begun to lose its population for the first time since the 1930s.

Perhaps as a result, the weekly Boothbay Register is no longer in the habit of publishing anti-growth screeds like Randall’s. Reading some of the articles it has published about Coulombe and his efforts, you’d have no clue he was a deeply polarizing figure in town. “Small communities are somewhat known for being resistant to change,” says Kevin Burnham, the paper’s longtime editor. “They like the landscape the way it is. They are satisfied with their way of life. But Paul’s outlook is to make the region a little more vibrant than it has been for the past quarter-century.” Burnham’s decision to publish mostly benign, straight-news accounts of Coulombe’s various exploits may be a journalistic one. But during our interview in his office, he also seems a little relieved that somebody has decided to shake things up: “I’m 59 years old. I’ve seen the good times and the bad times around here. And it is stagnant.”

When I called Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who lives in East Boothbay, I anticipated at least a degree of haughty scorn for Coulombe. Instead, Ford seemed mostly optimistic about whatever stimulus, economic or otherwise, his presence portended. “Nobody’s view of a community is definitive,” he said. “You have to have commerce in a town like Boothbay. So one person’s idea of historical preservation is another person’s idea of being out of work.”

Coulombe has given the town plenty of reasons to like him: He’s put his money into the YMCA, an opera house, a regional healthcare center, even a new fisherman’s pier. It seems like a simple enough equation: town needs boost. Man provides boost. So why the hell does Boothbay detest its largest benefactor?

Here’s one theory: Paul Coulombe has an unlikely PR problem on his hands. Ask him if there’s any real difference in flavor between his vodkas—between any vodkas, really—and he’ll chuckle: “It’s all marketing, packaging, totally.” For a man who so intuitively understands the power of branding, though, he has failed miserably at selling his vision to the Boothbay community.

And he’s paid dearly for it. Little by little, as Coulombe moved ahead with his big plans, he began to lose little battles. Under scrutiny from environmentalists, he abandoned his plan to dredge a nearby cove to more easily dock his 29-foot yacht. There was also the issue of the speed bumps, which he lobbied unsuccessfully to remove. After he had erected a pricey (by Boothbay standards) new restaurant in Southport, a few rocks ended up getting dumped in the backseat of his car. (“I did find a few rocks in a car, but do not know who did it,” Coulombe wrote me in an email, adding, “It was the Rolls and no damage.”)

Since then, the residents of Southport voted to deny the restaurant a liquor license. This shouldn’t surprise Coulombe much. The first time he attended a town meeting on Southport Island, Coulombe says, “It was really horrible; everybody in the whole island showed up. I didn’t know how angry they were.” (One member of the anti-Coulombe faction remarked, “If his intelligence is like his taste, he won’t know that a huge population of the town is just livid.”)

paul coulombe

Bet Finocchiaro | Photograph by Gabe Souza

The biggest thorn in his side has proved to be Bet Finocchiaro, the longtime owner of a wildly popular fried-fish stand, and the “hub of the town’s wheel,” as Coulombe’s contractor, Steve Malcom, puts it. Bet’s Fish Fry, adorned with a delightfully garish bikini-clad mermaid, features a sign that (every day) reads, “Free Beer Tomorrow.” It also happens to sit directly between Coulombe’s two central projects: the Boothbay Common and the golf club’s lavish new entrance. Coulombe wanted the land. But Bet—it would seem wrong to refer to her by her last name—refused to sell before she even heard Coulombe’s offer. (She eventually allowed him to use a narrow slice of her property in exchange for a refurbished picnic-table area, which he developed.)

“This is what I get from everybody,” Bet says when I meet her at her home, a cozy 18th-century post-and-beam house that was refurbished by her husband, a shipwright. “‘Bet, I’m so proud of you, you said no to that prick.’” Next, she asks me what I think of him. I try to say something vague and impartial. “He’d be nobody I’d want to be a friend with,” she says, not really listening to my answer. “I mean, what would we say to him? We could go and drink his alcohol and eat his fancy cheeses?” Before I leave, Bet hatches a plan to deal with him, should anything get out of hand. “If he starts pissing me off, or infringing upon my territory,” she swears, “it’s going to be ‘Free Golf Tomorrow.’”

 

One of the most beloved figures in Boothbay’s history is the late Marylouise Cowan, who married early into the Tandy RadioShack fortune and was for many years a leading benefactor in the community. But her sort of wealth—earned through marriage, spent with WASP restraint—is the kind Boothbay doesn’t really mind. “I have often been so impressed by how polite and unhurried they are,” says the Historical Society’s Rumsey, of the wealthy summer residents. “These people who have very important jobs, you know, kind of run around a little tight-lipped. And I would think, What a wonderful way to be. Very graceful.”

Whatever the opposite of that is, Coulombe’s home embodies it. The day after we toured the golf club, he invites me over for dinner, and then to spend the night in the property’s guest house. (Full disclosure: I accepted the invite but declined to take home with me the golf shirt and the baseball cap, emblazoned with a lobster logo and navigational coordinates, that he offers to all his overnight houseguests.) Our evening begins with a nearly hourlong tour of the grounds, which takes us through four different buildings and an underground tunnel. The infinity pool leads to the outdoor bar, which leads to the “boat house,” near where Lionel Richie performed during Coulombe’s wedding—which leads to an “entertainment room” where his stepchildren play Call of Duty on a 103-inch TV, and which, roughly 45 minutes or so later, brings us at last to the “master wing,” i.e., the actual building where the living and the eating and the sleeping get done.

In the master wing, Coulombe gestures toward the aforementioned Versailles-replica chandelier, in 14-karat-gold, which he hired French artisans to build. “It’s really simplistic, but it’s actually gold,” he says. “It’s worth more than most homes are worth.” Nodding politely is Boothbay Harbor Country Club general manager John Suczynski, who will be joining us for dinner. Nearby, Coulombe shows off a mirror that doubles as a television. Eventually, the thing comes to life and a woman’s face, instead of mine, appears before me. “Hello,” she says. “I’m First Lady Ann LePage.” Coulombe moves to turn it off. “That’s the governor’s wife,” he says. “She’s been here many times.” (Coulombe gave $160,000 to the Maine Republican party in 2014, making him the third-largest political donor in the state.)

By the time we sit down to eat—I am served roast chicken made by Giselaine and a 2010 Argentinian malbec poured into a glass the size of a small nuclear warhead—Coulombe has become a little self-conscious about all the splendor. “All my friends that are contemporaries that are wealthy,” he says, “even those guys are always mad at me. They’re always like, ‘Why do you do that? All you do is cause everyone not to like you. You drive a big-ass Rolls-Royce. People don’t like that.’ I say, ‘You know what? I don’t give a shit what they like because I like it. That’s all that matters.’”

His defiance is flaring up now. “I really like luxuries,” he continues. “I really like them. I like crystal beer glasses. I really enjoy it. I like nice cars and nice homes and great swimming pools and good food and I really enjoy every bit—and I always did.”

To Coulombe, his conspicuous consumption is proof not that he’s out of touch, but that he is the only one with the perspective necessary to lift Boothbay out of its doldrums. “I was here in 1960,” he says. “I came to Boothbay. I saw how busy it was. The traffic was lined up to Route 1. I mean, you couldn’t even drive into Boothbay, it was insane.” He goes on. “The people that say they don’t want change are the people that have no knowledge, and they’re ignorant of economics. You know, it’s a guy that’s a lobsterman, which, there’s a lot of them. It’s a guy at the local gas station. It’s the guy, you know, cleaning beds in the local motel…. They’re all unemployed in the winter and drinking at McSeagull’s. So I don’t think that’s good. I mean, the men still beat the wives.”

Buried somewhere deep in this thicket of offensive non sequiturs seems to be a well-intentioned point about the necessity of good, year-round jobs. But eventually, the potentially disastrous PR consequences of rants like these begin to dawn on him. After our interview, he emails me to ask if he can see a copy of my article before it goes to print. He doesn’t explain why, and I don’t acquiesce. But the reason for the request is clear. As he’d told me at one point over dinner, “I don’t want the town to resent me more than they already do.”

 

It’s probably not an enjoyable sensation to be hated by a large swath of a given population. But aside from a couple of minor development setbacks, and some irreversible reputational harm, Paul Coulombe is probably going to get his way in the long run. On the Saturday morning before I depart Boothbay, I head down to the tip of Southport Island for a town meeting that is taking place, quite literally, on a slippery slope—or, if you insist, a bunch of large, slippery rocks. The meeting concerns Coulombe’s lighthouse/luxury inn, and the dock he wants to build for the purpose of ferrying his guests to and fro.

More than a dozen concerned residents have shown up to voice their concerns about safety hazards or navigational annoyances posed by the project. Some mild complaints will be lodged, but for the most part, it seems the attendees are here less to try and stymie his plans than to bolster their own, possibly dwindling, sense of agency over the fate of the island.

Once everybody arrives, Gerry Gamage kicks off the proceedings. “Southport Board of Selectmen, site of PGC 4 LLC—”

A middle-aged woman with a head of formerly strawberry-blond hair interrupts him. “What the hell does PGC 4 LLC stand for? Do you mind telling us? It’s just annoying!” Gamage finishes his spiel, then looks up. “PGC 4 stands for Paul G. Coulombe, number four. LLC.”

Twenty minutes later, Gamage, satisfied with the input, adjourns the meeting. I ask him what will happen next. “We’re going to vote on it,” he says. “It’s fair to say we’ll approve it.”


Simon van Zuylen-Wood Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Contributing Editor svzwood@gmail.com