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Foster Retires as Town Manager After 15+ Years
of Service to the Community of Fort Fairfield
By: David Deschesne
Fort Fairfield Journal, December 25, 2013
After fifteen years and three months, Dan Foster is retiring as town manager of Fort Fairfield. Taking the job in September of 1998, Foster continued a legacy of leadership in Fort Fairfield as he is descended from Daniel Foster, one of Fort Fairfield's original 'founding fathers' as well as having family ties to the Haines family through his grandmother, Marian Haines, great-granddaughter of J. Wingate Haines who was one of the first settlers in Fort Fairfield.
Dan's first mandate from the town council as town manager was a large one, get a new dike built to protect Fort Fairfield's Main Street.
“When I started, one of the things the council told me was this is your number one priority, this is the thing that you need to focus on, we want to get this done and your first year's evaluation is going to be predicated on how well you do.”
The dike was necessary to prevent future flooding of Main Street from the Aroostook River, which breached its banks in 1993 and put the buildings there under nearly five feet of water. “The dike was important for the integrity of who Fort Fairfield is and what it represents. If we didn't have our Main Street, it would really take away from who we are. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it would be a ghost town down there, it would be disgusting.”
It was suggested by some at the time to move Main Street to higher ground, such as Presque Isle Street. “We could not take Main Street and recreate it up on Presque Isle Street like a lot of people talked about. We didn't have the resources to tear it down and turn it into a green field, let alone rebuild it on higher ground.”
Dan admits he didn't know much at all about the dike project, let alone how to build one. “What I found out was we had a million dollars set aside and we needed eight million. When I got a chance to sit down and talk with the Army Corps of Engineers basically what they told me was they were not going to support the federal funding of it because in their estimation the cost of the infrastructure exceeded the value of the property it was protecting.”
Despite the roadblocks in funding, Foster was able to negotiate funding for the dike from various sources, with then Senator Olympia Snowe being instrumental in helping to acquire that money. “Olympia Snowe and her staff really carried the water on this project, that's where the credit belongs.”
While building something the size of the dike was daunting, Foster, as Fort Fairfield's representative to the project, accepted the task with a positive attitude. “It was all about understanding who I needed to see regarding the issue at the moment. This is not about me being an expert, product knowledge is the least of the concerns I had in doing the job. The biggest issue for me was, do I clearly understand what the issue is and what is the appropriate source of information for me to make sure that I am able to provide good advice in moving forward. If I was concerned about anything it was am I asking the right questions and am I asking them to the right people. Whether I did know or didn't know did not create any anxiety for me. There's all kinds of stuff that I don't know, it's endless. But do I know who to ask, do I know where to get the information.”
With as important as the dike was for the integrity of Fort Fairfield's business community, an even greater challenge presented itself a few years later when Bangor and Aroostook Railroad decided to decommission 8.6 miles of track in Fort Fairfield. Foster, under the direction of the town council, then went to work to see what could be done to preserve the rail line for future economic activity. “If Fort Fairfield was ever going to have any economic vitality based upon the fact that we're in the middle of an agricultural area we needed a rail line. Fort Fairfield, because of our geographical location, is an ideal site in relation to how we handle waste water, where we are on the river, how we handle energy, where the farming is being done- we're very centrally located - but development is not going to happen if you don't have a railroad.”
The town eventually purchased 8.6 miles of track from Bangor and Aroostook using various grant sources and upgraded one siding then built two others. “We put in a new siding at McShea siding and a new siding in at the energy plant then we upgraded the siding at Fairmont. We didn't want to own a railroad, we didn't want to operate a railroad, we just wanted to make sure it's here in Fort Fairfield so we get the work done and deed it over to a rail company and they can have it and it would be all upgraded.”
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic used the newly upgraded rail line for a short time before filing for bankruptcy and abandoning the line. Under an agreement reached with the Maine Department of Transportation, the rail line reverted to the DOT who now overseas its maintenance and contracts with a rail service provider to provide product transportation throughout Aroostook County.
Foster philosophized on how he is able to handle roadblocks to projects in such a way as to always find a way around them to get the job done. “If I run into a challenge or an obstacle, I have two ways I can look at it. I can look at it from the standpoint that says I guess we can't get around that, we can't do it; or, I can look at it and say alright, so how do I get around this one, how do I get beyond this particular problem that we have. The psychology of most people is to quit too quickly. Sometimes people say they don't care, it's just not worth it, they have a tendency to want to quit too soon.”
While he admittedly can be a bit brash at times, Foster has always sought to find a way to bring people together. “Establishing public policy, doing things in the public eye is not about being right. You've got to get beyond this concept that you're right because there are way too many well-meaning people who think differently than you do who are just as right as you are. If you want to try to pull people together and make a community work collectively everybody has got to have a say in what's going on. If you honestly believe in your heart of hearts that you're right and somebody thinks differently than you then that makes them wrong. So, what happens is you go from collaboration to confrontation because you're sitting there trying to prove why they're wrong and that is not a good recipe either for good public policy or good community relations. The more people who are invested in the outcome, the better off we all are.”
When it comes to collaboration, Foster sees Fort Fairfield as a unique town among its peers. “Fort Fairfield is different. There's something about this community from a collective standpoint. There are an awful lot of individuals who are very good-hearted and kind. People have auras about them. You can sense they're nice, or uptight, or angry. You can have a collective aura and there is something about Fort Fairfield that is overall, positive. You may see people get upset but you never see a collective group of people who are either picking on someone or are negative collectively toward something that's going on. People in Fort Fairfield are very prone to share and I think we as a community handle scarcity incredibly well compared to other communities that I've seen. People here are really good at handling individual idiosyncrasies, they're able to overlook that stuff. That makes all the difference in how we get things done, how people feel, about how we're able to move forward and really it's about how we look, feel and are seen in relation to our peers around us. That's our competition. Where is a business going to locate? Where is a person going to choose to buy a house and live? There are some communities that people just do not want to live in and you do not want Fort Fairfield to be one of those.”
Reflecting back on his tenure as town manager, Foster recalls a very skilled and efficient working group that is the town council. “Since I've been here we've had fifteen or sixteen different councilors. They've come from different walks of life, different life experiences, different educational experiences and I've always seen that council focused on what's in the best interest of Fort Fairfield. The vast majority were making decisions by consensus. I think I've only seen one or two votes where the chairman had to cast the deciding vote and when that happened they all kind of chuckled and moved on, there were no hard feelings. Some of my best moments were sitting there watching the council. Collectively, the wisdom is amazing. They don't make many bad choices. They work together which speaks volumes for the community.
Foster says one of the things that fuels dysfunction and animosity within a collective community is what's going on within the council itself. “If the council is divided and there's a lot of animosity there that carries over into the community. There was one time when the council was divided and that's when Colin Campbell got elected. What happened was you had two councilors step up and make public statements about his behavior. They just said we're not going to tolerate what you're doing, it is not Fort Fairfield. It was amazing to see. He resigned after that, he was done. They weren't mean-spirited but they were very black and white. They had prepared statements that said we are not going to allow his behavior to continue.”
During his time as town manager Foster oversaw many other projects in addition to the dike and railroad acquisition. Some of those projects were FARM park, Riverside Park, the Community Bandstand, the installation of the Town clock, the new town office addition at the Community Center, the Streetlight upgrade to LED, the installation of two new town swimming pools, the fountain at Hillcrest Estates, CP Park, the Munson Pond dam project, the construction of the new community health clinic and The Meadows senior citizen housing.
“Since I've been here we've spent $30 million in infrastructure upgrades in this community and it really has not impacted our budget one iota. The projects are great, but to me what's more important is how we were able to do them. It's because of the inhabitants in town that we're successful.”
A retirement dinner was held for Dan at the Community Center with over 150 people in attendance. There were several guest speakers, one of whom was Dennis Curley, from CanXus Broadcasting Corporation. “I've been in the business of broadcasting now for 55 years and most times I've watched town managers get run out of town, often on a rail, but Dan is being honored for an amazing job well done,” he said.
Also speaking was Dan's younger brother, John who noted Dan's passion for community. “Dan's from Fort Fairfield and Dan has a passion for Fort Fairfield. My brother knows it's not a town manager that makes a town. He has to have people help him make decisions come through. He needs a quality town council and quality department heads and very high quality employees and last but not least he needs the taxpayers to make it all happen.”
In attendance at his retirement dinner were Dan's parents, John and Natalie who, despite their age, are in good health and getting around nicely. “I'm 62 years old and at no time have my parents ever been a burden on me either financially, emotionally, or physically in any way,” said Dan. “They've always been able to take care of themselves. The only thing that they have ever asked me is what can we do for you today? I just can't believe how blessed I have been in that regard.”
Dan will be replaced by Mike Bosse, who was hired by the town council a few months ago. “Mike will do a great job,” said Foster. “He's very conservative and has a strong business background. I told the council I have no say in the selection, nor would I expect to have one but for Pete's sake, hire a businessman for this job, don't hire a bureaucrat. We don't need a bureaucrat, we need a businessman and Mike is a very good one. He's also a lot quieter than I am and I think a lot of people are going to find that a relief.”
Dan and his wife*, Darlene have sold their house in Fort Fairfield and are planning to move to Florida where he intends to play a substantial amount of golf and explore what other opportunities may be there for him.
*CORRECTION: In the Dan Foster Retirement story in Fort Fairfield Journal, December 25, 2013, Dan was incorrectly referred to as being married to Darlene and they are moving to Florida. They have in fact been divorced for 12 years. Darlene recently sold her house in Fort Fairfield but Dan sold his house in Fort Fairfield 2 years ago. She has been an inhabitant in Florida for six months.
Above photo: Retiring Fort Fairfield Town
Manager, Dan Foster addresses the attendees at his pot-luck retirement supper
held at the Fort Fairfield Community Center on December 10.
Approximately 150 people were in attendance.
Fort Fairfield Journal ©2013 David R. Deschesne, All Rights Reserved