When John Falla began his tenure as St. George’s town manager at the end of March in 1987, the office he occupied was in the old school building at the south side of today’s town parking lot. “It was one door in, one door out and one light switch when you entered and left,” Falla recalls. In the old days, he notes, before 1968 when the building was first staffed 40 hours a week, the selectmen came down on Monday nights to open the building. “If anyone had a problem that’s when they could come talk to them.”
Falla’s last day as town manager will be February 1, just shy of 30 years in the job. But in some ways he’s been part of St. George’s town government much longer than that.
Careful to note that he is not a true native of St. George—“One of the older natives once made the comment, when I said I was a native of St. George, that I was NOT a native because I was born in a hospital in Rockland,” he explains, adding with a grin, “My father’s response was, ‘Well, you were conceived in St. George!’”—Falla grew up in St. George in the 1950s, with parents who were always active in the community.
“My father was a selectman. I can remember as a very young kid coming down to the town office with him and playing with the clerk’s seal and stuff like that. I grew up being familiar with town government. My father served on the planning board, on the school board and on different ad hoc committees. He was one of the elders of the town.”
Falla attended elementary school in St. George and Georges Valley High School. He then attended Thomas College in Waterville, spending summers working on the line crew for Down East Airlines at the airport in Owls Head. After graduating from Thomas with a business administration degree and a major in accounting, he returned to St. George.
“After I graduated I was thinking I wanted to come home and didn’t want to go off to any big corporate area. It wasn’t long after that that the owner of Down East Airlines called and asked, ‘Are you coming back to work?” I said, ‘Well I’ve graduated and I’m looking for a job in accounting,’ and he said that that was what he had in mind, that he wanted me to come back. So from 1976 until 1980 I worked there as an accountant.”
Falla then started his own financial business doing accounting, taxes and bookkeeping for a variety of clients. He first began serving as a town official in September of 1983, when he was elected to fill an unexpired term as a selectman. He was elected to another term in 1984. “But after a year I said I couldn’t run a business and be a good father and husband so I decided to resign. So they put me on the finance committee.”
In the fall of 1986 the select board appointed him as interim town manager while they pursued a hiring process to get someone for the position full time. But when it came to making a decision on a candidate the four-member select board came to a draw and reopened their search.
“When the town manager position was reopened for hiring, that was the discussion my wife and I had,” Falla says. “Working for myself, I would get a call in the morning, like at 5:30am, when the taxi company opened up and was looking at the books and then I’d get a call from other business owners who, once they closed at the end of the day and had gone home to have a bite to eat, would begin looking at things and I’d get calls until 9pm at night. So what was the difference between that and working for the town? So what was the benefit? Working for yourself you don’t have any paid vacations and you don’t have and you don’t have. Granted, you can be your own boss working for yourself, but with a young family and everything else it seemed worth giving it a shot and seeing what would happen. As a selectman I had an idea what I was getting into, but I never realized that 30 years later I’d still be here.”
Being a lifelong resident of St. George and having had an unusually long run as town manager, Falla has seen many changes in the town. “I grew up here in the 1950s—that was the smallest the town had been since it had been incorporated in the early 1800s. The granite industry had left and there was no shipping industry. A couple of years after I started in 1987 we spent time gathering information for a comprehensive plan. We talked about how the industries had changed and I remember being a little flip about it, but I said apparently the industry we’re in now is retirement. The Rackliff Island subdivision had been created in the 1970s and more subdivisions began to be developed throughout town in the years that followed. Before that, someone might buy a small piece of land and put a cottage on it and then summer here and maybe winterize it and move up or maybe retire to the area or something like that. But with subdivisions it became more so, with all these finger roads going off Route 131 to the shore.”
If he had to describe St. George to a stranger, Falla says, he would call it a small coastal Maine community. “At this point the town has become more of a bedroom community—there is no industry. Yes, lobstering and fishing are still significant to the town, but I have never thought of them as ‘industries.’ Industries such as shipbuilding and quarries are organized and formal, where lobstering and fishing are independently operated. I feel this independence is what draws people to work in this field, as well as what adds to the mystique for the outsiders looking in. And this independence affects the businesses related to them. The beauty of the area brings people here and the choices we’ve made about local government, the roads, the tax rate have also been a factor. People who have been living here a long time say the taxes keep going up, and the people who move in say the taxes are so cheap.”
Reflecting on whether the “taxes-are-so-cheap” newcomers have changed the town in any significant way, Falla says he believes that, while they have helped make the town more affluent, they haven’t really changed the character of the town. “I was interviewed by someone from a study group eight or 10 years ago who asked if it was difficult working with all the retired middle-level and higher-level executives here who are used to getting what they want. I was a little puzzled because I’ve always treated everyone the same.”
After a pause, he elaborates. “People who move into town and acclimate themselves to the community, who blend in, those are the ones who are successful in becoming part of the community. Those who don’t become part of the community end up moving. If you move here because you like the place, don’t try to create something else, become part of it. A strong part of the attitude of the local community is, ‘I don’t care who you are or where you came from, you put your pants on the same way I do.’ The Wyeth family has always liked the area for that reason. And the other names who are in town are treated the same as anyone else.”
Falla’s love of history, especially local history, goes a long way in explaining his openness to the ever-changing demographics of St. George. “The feeling of them-and-us isn’t really real, it’s more of a perceived thing. Most of the people working in the town office are from away in background. Yes, there is a history and we may identify some properties by their previous owners—such as referring to Hall’s Market when we mean the Tenants Harbor General Store. But it’s always amazed me the melting pot that is St. George and the reasons for it. Often it’s the economic reasons that bring people here.”
By way of example Falla notes that his grandfather came to St. George from the island of Guernsey. He worked in quarries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where Falla’s father was born, before coming to work as a quarryman in St. George. Falla’s mother was a “summer girl” who was born and raised in Waltham, Massachusetts. Her parents, who eventually bought a place and then retired here, spent their honeymoon in Martinsville in 1912, being drawn to this area because of people they had known in Waltham who were from St. George and had migrated to Waltham for work in the Waltham watch factory.
The town office Falla will be leaving on February 1 is a far cry from the old school building where he began his career as town manager. It stands on the site of the old high school that was demolished to make way for a new town office he moved into in July of 1987. The fire station and meeting room expansion was completed in 2003 in time for the town’s bicentennial. To Falla, these are simply outward and visible signs of 30 years of hard effort to provide the basic services that the people of the town have wanted. “Yes, there have been quite a few changes. But these are not my doing alone. This is a team effort that we’ve always had here. It’s the people who support you, the co-workers, the select board and town committee members. Everyone has always been supportive, it’s been a group effort.”—JW
(There will be a reception to honor Falla for his 30 years of service as Town Manager on Saturday, January 28 from 6-8pm at the Odd Fellows Hall on Watts Avenue in Tenants Harbor.)
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman