Does Boothbay Have a Vodka Problem?

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paul coulombe

Paul Coulombe, owner of the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, tours the golf course he’s renovating. (Photograph by Portland Press Herald/getty images)

The guy you’ll want to thank for the existence of the best-selling, personal-fortune-making, all-but-undrinkable Pinnacle whipped-cream vodka is standing on a pile of rubble, wearing a pair of knee-high wellies and a shirt that’s unbuttoned halfway to his navel. It’s late March, and 62-year-old liquor magnate Paul Coulombe is observing the remnants of a mediocre golf course he’s in the process of luxe-ifying, from the hilly site of what will one day be a gargantuan clubhouse. “This view,” he comments, “is spectacular.” Swiveling his head to the left, he notices something less spectacular. “Now, we can see the cemetery, which I’m not that fond of.” A brief, slapstick discussion ensues, between him and his contractor, about the problem of the dead people across the street who are ruining the panorama. It is determined that the dead people can’t be moved.

It’s fairly clear that Paul Coulombe was never committed to the possibility of a mass unburial. Nonetheless, there’s symbolic value here: Coulombe is of the opinion that the town of Boothbay—along with neighboring Boothbay Harbor and Southport Island—is for all intents and purposes dead. “I always saw the town as kind of folding and getting passed by Camden or Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor,” says Coulombe, who has a tuft of white hair and a honking voice that makes his nose sound perpetually clogged. “There’s just not been investment, I hate to say it, in the last 50 or 60 years. So I’m the first one who’s come to this town and thought it was worth saving.”

In 2012 Coulombe sold off his Lewiston-based White Rock Distilleries for $605 million—in addition to Pinnacle, his other marquee brands included Three Olives vodka and Calico Jack rum—and has used his fortune and spare time to reinvent himself as Boothbay’s leading entrepreneur, philanthropist, and all-purpose agitator. Boothbay, an hour north of Portland, near the tip of one of Maine’s many peninsulas, is in the winter months an aged ghost town. Come May, it springs to life, but still doesn’t draw the crowds of the state’s more-pedigreed resort communities. On paper, Coulombe—and his cash—would seem like an obviously welcome arrival. Instead, his crass personal style and new-money bravado have had a profoundly alienating effect. Because what might seem to Coulombe like “saving” reads as “ruining” to many of his new neighbors. And while he may find preppy, moneyed Kennebunkport to be the epitome of a thriving summer destination, for much of Boothbay, it’s a loafers-and-popped-collar hellscape.

The tension that has emerged between Coulombe and his adopted hometown tugs at a larger debate over the fundamental character of Boothbay—and, by extension, coastal Maine. Coulombe, whose Formula One driving tendencies contributed to the installation of speed bumps in one part of town, can seem like he was pulled from rich-jerk central casting. The rest of Boothbay, by contrast, is generally divided between blueish-collar year-rounders and quietly wealthy summer folk. Kennebunkport’s version of celebrity is the Bushes; Boothbay Harbor’s is former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. “Traditional summer people that I know or heard about didn’t believe in making big statements,” says Barbara Rumsey, a historian at the Boothbay Region Historical Society. “They came here to get away from that world, to just be ordinary people.”

Coulombe, meanwhile, is decidedly uninterested in behaving in an ordinary manner. Among his exploits: building a $30 million waterfront manse with 37 televisions and a Versailles-replica chandelier; transforming a historical lighthouse into a luxury inn; buying more than 30 properties to expand the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, where, incidentally, the cost of a membership will be doubling in 2016. Next up: a massive, secretive project to redevelop the area around the historical Boothbay Common into what was mysteriously described to me as a “village.”

paul coulombe

An hourlong tour of the grounds includes stops at the infinity pool (bottom right) and the outdoor bar (top). In the “master wing” (bottom left), Coulombe gestures toward a custom-built, 14-karat-gold chandelier. “It’s really simplistic, but it’s actually gold,” he says. “It’s worth more than most homes are worth.” (photographs by brian vanden brink for the knickerbocker group)

This is a story that pits economic development against historical preservation; nouveau riche against old New England; change against stasis. But perhaps more than any of that, it’s the story about a little waterfront community holding its collective breath, waiting to see how far one man of almost unlimited means is willing to push his vision.

Back on the pile of rubble, at the country club, Coulombe diverts his attention to a slice of land where, in time, a spa, tennis courts, and potentially villas will sit. “We knocked down, I don’t want to say hundreds of trees, but quite a few trees,” he says. His amiable, mustachioed contractor, Steve Malcom, in what is perhaps an attempt at humor, chimes in: “But at the same time we were knocking trees down, we were knocking buildings down.” This delights Coulombe. “We’re not just going to offend a few of you!” he cackles. “We’re going to offend the whole bunch of you!”

 

Maine is a notoriously homogenous state. There are almost no black, Hispanic, or Asian people there. However, there’s one salient way the population seems to divvy itself up: Either you’re from here, or you’re from “away.” And Paul Coulombe is a case study in just how local you need to be to avoid “away” status. Considered by essentially everyone I spoke to while reporting this piece to be a carpetbagger, Coulombe was actually raised in Lewiston, 48 miles northwest of Boothbay. His father, Raymond Coulombe, was a hard, modest man with family ties in Québec. As a young man Raymond worked at a textile factory in Lewiston before relocating the family to Venezuela during the 1960s, as the industry moved out of the Northeast. When that didn’t work out—the story I heard involved a hostile socialist government and a bunch of machine guns—he returned to Lewiston and purchased White Rock Distilleries. For decades, under Raymond Coulombe’s leadership, White Rock was a low-key regional operation, distilling, among other unremarkable liquors, dirt-cheap Lawrence Screwdriver vodka.

Coulombe’s expensive habits, even at a young age, diverged sharply from his parents’ frugality. (“Even when I was completely penniless,” he tells me over a glass of wine, “I’d still drink good wine.”) Nonetheless, after Coulombe graduated from the University of Maine, his father lured him away from other job opportunities to work at White Rock.

Coulombe’s brother Dennis, who ran the firm’s day-to-day operations, was closer to his father than Paul was. But thanks to his talent for promotion and sales, it was Paul, not Dennis, who was eventually handed control of the company in 1995. What Coulombe understood was that to sell massive quantities of liquor, all he had to do was create slight variations on better, more popular liquors. For Three Olives, which he created in 1998, he cribbed Grey Goose’s frosted glass. For Pinnacle, which came later, he had it manufactured in France—again, just like Grey Goose (hence the nickname “Baby Goose”). Within a few years, Pinnacle and Three Olives were regularly among the bestselling vodkas in the country. And the whipped-cream variety became the lord of the flavoreds.

By the time Coulombe sold off Three Olives (he later sold off the rest of the company), he appeared headed for early retirement, deciding to travel with his new wife, Giselaine, a perky blonde from Toronto nearly 20 years his junior. (Coulombe had been a bachelor for a dozen years, following a brief first marriage that produced one daughter.) Then two things happened. First, he got bored. “I’m not ready to read a book, or go on an eternal cruise,” he realized.

Second, he decided it was time to fulfill a childhood fantasy. “Well, my initial dream, all my life, since I’ve been a little boy,” he said, “has been to own my own town.”

So he got to work. He had an emotional attachment to the Boothbay area from visiting with his family, and in 2008 he began building his home there, eventually constructing his nearly 18,000-square-foot Southport Island estate. Later, in 2013, he purchased the golf club several miles north, in Boothbay proper. Next came the expansion of the golf club, requiring, among other things, the uprooting of an almost 220-year-old Boothbay landmark, the Kenniston Hill Inn. (Coulombe agreed to displace rather than tear down the inn after a group of irate residents mobilized, but he isn’t doing himself any favors when he repeatedly refers to it in our conversations as the “Kensington Inn.”) Meanwhile, he got to work on a bevy of unrelated, equally disruptive projects: a massive (aborted) dredging project to facilitate the docking of his yacht; a bougie restaurant that took the place of a decades-old greasy spoon; the lighthouse inn for high-net-worth individuals; and, finally, the buying up of the area around Boothbay Common, for what will likely be his most ambitious project of all, potentially featuring dining options and boutiques.

As a result of this expansionary zeal, Coulombe has more or less divided the town between the folks who loathe him unconditionally and the smarmy yes men who’ve gravitated to his cause. (“Many people have not seen the light of day since he came to town,” one local said of the ass-kissing/brownnosing contingent.) But Coulombe’s majesty is such that he’s found a way to rub even the moderates the wrong way.

Gerry Gamage is one of these people. He’s a former lobsterman, a volunteer fire chief, and the chair of the Southport Board of Selectmen. Ruddy-faced, with a characteristically thick Maine accent, Gamage brushes away talk that Coulombe’s money alone is somehow destroying the fabric of the community. “The bigger the tax base, the easier it is on all taxpayers,” he points out. “He’s helping in that regard.” Yet there’s something about Coulombe that Gamage can’t quite stomach. Part of it’s the hubris. (“Guess what,” he says of Coulombe’s possibly daft notion to build a luxury inn on a large rock in the ocean, “the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t care what Paul Coulombe thinks.”) But mostly I got the sense that Gamage’s objections come back to the inescapable, slightly uncomfortable question of who belongs in Boothbay and who doesn’t.

“People move here from away,” Gamage says, “because they don’t like the way things are going there. But they bring their ideas here and try to instill them on us. And they forget that they left there because they didn’t care for it there! A lot of people don’t get it. They can’t stand back far enough to see what they’re doing.”

 

In 1939, a local artist named Asa Randall took to the pages of the Boothbay Register to warn of the dangers of overdevelopment: “In improving the town and increasing business,” he wrote, “there is a danger worse than a destructive fire.” Seventy-six years later, Boothbay is still mired in an existential crisis, unsure if it’s a working-class lobster depot or a summer resort town.

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.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/05/26/paul-coulombe-boothbay/