With 216 miles of rocky shores, the Town of Harpswell has the longest coastline in Maine. But as housing grows less affordable, families and fishermen fear losing access to the Gulf of Maine, and Bowdoin’s 118-acre Schiller Coastal Studies Center finds its community role expanded.
In 2022, MaineHousing—the state’s housing authority—released a report detailing how 77.9 percent of households in Harpswell could not afford the area’s median priced home after an increase in median home values by 52 percent—or $233,000—since the beginning of the pandemic. Holly Parker, director of the Schiller Coastal Studies Center since July 2022, has found herself struggling with the burden of increased personal property taxes and noted the key space Schiller can provide Harpswell residents for discussing these sorts of economic challenges.
“This is a community of people who both live on the water and make their living from it,” Parker said. “So we’re thinking about issues like gentrification [and] access to the waterfront for folks.”
In August, Schiller hosted a panel entitled “Gentrification, Access, and You,” which brought Bowdoin and Harpswell community members into conversation with leaders of groups like the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, many of them also Harpswell residents.
Alongside discussing affordable housing challenges, panel members fielded questions about the economic challenges of Harpswell’s aging community. Harpswell is the oldest town in Maine, with a median age of 56.9 years. Younger residents have long left Harpswell for educational or work opportunities elsewhere. Students attend school in the town only until 5th grade, after which they attend middle and high schools in larger, consolidated districts, which Parker cited as an example of the cyclical nature of aging in the town.
Monique Coombs, the director of community programs at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association said that hosting the panel represents one of the key ways Schiller can add to the community.
“It’s an amazing facility, and [Parker] has done a fantastic job expressing interest and being additive to the community, as opposed to extractive … being very proactive in seeking out ways in which to work with the fishermen or to provide access to a meeting space,” Coombs said.
Though Parker has expanded Schiller’s engagement with the community during her leadership, the Center has long been College property. In 1932, William Thalheimer, Class of 1927, bought the property and still-extant farmhouse from the Hanson family, Danish immigrants who had owned the land for decades. In 1981, the Thalheimers sold the property to Bowdoin. In the late 1990s, the space became a marine research facility after a donation from Leon Gorman ’56, H’83 and his wife Lisa made the construction of a research laboratory possible. In 2011, the College embarked on a fundraising effort to expand the Center, which resulted in a significant renovation in 2014.
In 2017, a $10 million gift from Kim Gassett-Schiller and Phil Schiller, P’17 allowed a substantial expansion of the laboratory and facilities and prompted the renaming of the center.
In response to the Schillers’ donation, President Clayton Rose noted the expanded potential for student and faculty research that would deepen understanding of the Gulf of Maine ecosystems.
“This extraordinary act … will transform the Coastal Studies Center into a facility where students and faculty from Bowdoin and from other institutions can gather together for concentrated periods—to learn from each other and advance knowledge about the ocean, marine science, and the impact of climate change on marine life,” Rose wrote to the Bowdoin community.
One of the Center’s largest student research opportunities is the Coastal Studies Semester (formerly the Marine Science Semester), in which 12 students attend all of their fall semester classes at the Center and embark upon an individual, semester-long research project. In response to the warming climate, Parker noted that many projects focus on changes to the Gulf environment, which can provide valuable information to local fishermen.
“I don’t think there’s a research project that happens at Schiller that doesn’t touch the climate, because the Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water in the world,” Parker said. “We want our students and faculty to be doing research that’s meaningful to the community.”
Parker cited a decade-long examination of green crabs, an invasive species attracted to Maine’s coast by the warming water, as a project of potential use to Harpswell’s fishing industry. Camille Beaulieu ’25, a Coastal Studies Semester participant this fall, is researching climate change’s coastal impact by studying aquatic carbon sequestration. Beaulieu also cited class visits from fishermen in the area as a valuable learning component of the semester.
“They really encourage us to look at projects specific to the Maine Coast,” Beaulieu said. “Coastal Studies is all about trying to emphasize place-based learning.”
Research does not encapsulate all of Bowdoin students’ engagement with Schiller, though. From sailing team practices to swimming on sunny days, Parker noted Schiller’s role as a community space. Fishermen often know sailing team members and assist with boats on the water in colder months. The main cause of controversy between students and Harpswell residents, Parker said, is students speeding too quickly on residential roads.
“As we leave the Brunswick campus and come down here, we need to remember that it’s a really different kind of space to be in,” Parker said. “We always reach out to the town and harbormaster to be sure we are following their rules.”
Schiller’s trails are open to the public, and Parker often sees the same families walking the wooded paths on her daily commute. While Coombs said the trail access is valuable to many Harpswell residents, she also noted the potential for public waterfront access as a possibly useful resource, especially as residents and fishermen increasingly struggle with a lack of access to the water. At the gentrification panel this summer, residents discussed the risk that public beaches and docks may be lost as the community grows wealthier.
“If, down the road, Schiller is able to offer access to the waterfront, for clam harvesters or the public, that’s an incredibly important part of climate adaptation for the fishing community because we are losing access to the waterfront,” Coombs said. “Any time there’s an opportunity to create more access, that’s beneficial.”
Parker echoed the importance of keeping Schiller’s value in mind in the center’s community interactions.
“We have to be cognizant that we are on a very valuable piece of property, if you look at property values,” Parker said. “You have to acknowledge that in conversations about gentrification … saying, ‘Yeah, we’re sitting on a big piece of private property with a lot of waterfront.’”
Though much of Schiller’s past research has been scientific in nature, Parker hopes that, in the future, students and faculty researchers can contribute to the community through examining economic or sociological issues in the community. Parker hopes to build deeper relationships between the Bowdoin community and the town so as to approach the issues facing Harpswell from an informed position rooted in local needs.
“That’s a way we can work with the town. I would love to see some Bowdoin students start getting involved with research that is outside our traditional realm … working on the economic issues in town and expanding our research portfolio to sustainable community questions,” she said. “You have to spend a lot of time building relationships and trust between different groups so that you can define the problems together and then go toward the solution.”