Bangor Daily News
By Diana Graettinger
Monday, May 24, 2004

Heritage center opens in Calais

CALAIS - It has taken seven years and a lot of work, but Saturday the Downeast Heritage Center on Union Street finally opened its doors with more than 400 people braving cold and rainy weather to get a peek at the exhibits that celebrate the historical significance of the Down East area.

Besides a small, shallow pool where youngsters can stroke a starfish or squeeze a sponge, the center boasts several other interactive displays and a re-creation of an Indian village.

A major draw in the 7,500 square feet of exhibit space was a Passamaquoddy display that provides a narrative of the tribe's past and present.

"It is a story that began thousands of years ago with the People of the Dawn," said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of the Passamaquoddy Tribe that lived here long before European settlers arrived.

Collins, one of the guest speakers, said: "The gentleness, civility and spirituality of this society are evident in the wonderful crafts, traditions and ceremonies the Downeast Heritage Center celebrates and showcases".

Another popular section Saturday was the St. Croix Island exhibit. Next month the city will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the settling of the island by the French.

Inside the exhibit, the projection of a French settler stands tall, his hat extended outward inviting people to look around. The settler and explorer, Pierre Dugua, seems to come to life as his image talks about the struggles the settlers encountered when they landed on the island in 1604.

The settlement existed three years before the famed English settlement at Jamestown, Va.

Collins, who embraced the project early on, said she had a tough job convincing Virginia senators that St. Croix Island is where it all began.

"You might find it interesting to know that the success I enjoyed in obtaining the $3.75 million for this heritage center came in part from educating my Senate colleagues that the European settlement at St. Croix actually predated the better known Jamestown," she said. "I will say that the senators from Virginia were exceptionally hard to convince this was true."

But convince them she did, and for her efforts an art and cultural theater in the heritage center was named after Collins.

Collins and others paid tribute Saturday to Jean Flahive of Eastport, who served as project coordinator and worked tirelessly to secure the $6.6 million needed to fund the project.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who had to attend a family graduation, sent the center a congratulatory letter. "Since its inception as a promising idea on a drawing board, the center has had a truly unique vision for sustainable tourism that highlights the culture, beauty and resources of Downeast, Maine," Snowe wrote.

Gov. John Baldacci, who was at the Democratic Convention in Portland Saturday, also sent a letter congratulating the efforts of those people who helped make the center a reality. "Today's opening of the Downeast Heritage Center is the outgrowth of the tremendous vision of this community and the people of Down East Maine. It is the culmination of years of planning and the tireless work of many partners, government organizations and, most importantly, of the many individuals who imagined what an asset this center will be to the Down East Region and all of Maine," Baldacci said.

Pleasant Point tribal Gov. Melvin Francis spoke about the rich partnership between the tribe and Calais that not only made the center a reality but that he hoped would lead to more economic partnerships.

"The tribe is looking at other resources other than the reservation land for the simple reason the economy has to grow," he said.

But Indian Township tribal Councilor John Stevens drew the most laughter when he suggested a possible venture that would enrich the area. "We have an island over here. St. Stephen could build a bridge to the island, Calais could build the [other part of the bridge] and the Passamaquoddy could build a casino," he said to thunderous applause.

Stevens was referring to the tribe´s unsuccessful efforts to build a casino in Maine.

The ceremonies included American Indian drumming, Acadian music and samples of St. Croix-area cooking.

Visit the Downeast Heritage Center website.
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