PART 2: Lewiston’s vodka millionaire tours his Southport estate and his golf course with the Sun Journal, and talks about the challenges of blending in

Editor’s note: Three years after he sold White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston native Paul Coulombe agreed to an interview that offered us unexpected access to his Boothbay-area home, properties, history and plans. Part one ran on Saturday. This is part two.

As Paul Coulombe zipped around the Boothbay Harbor Country Club on a beautiful near-summer day recently, he pointed out steep, newly minted hills and long, flat greens that were once craggy outcroppings.

He talked about telling workers to blow up ledge to reshape the fairway there and there and there.

Coulombe couldn’t say, exactly, how much earth he’s moved in pursuit of his renewed golf course, the one he hopes will kick-start a wave of visitors to town and an economic resurgence.

He did spend a quarter-million dollars on dynamite.

So, a lot.


He pointed out the $20 million clubhouse at the head of the course that will open next May with a grand indoor/outdoor bar. He pointed out the sites of future condos and villas, and the new arched stone bridge that’s a nod to a famous Scottish golf course.

Coulombe, the former owner of White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, has also bought a handful of properties around the nearby Boothbay Common with no specific plans, and he says he looks at real estate listings every day with an aim to expand his holdings.

It’s clear he wants to leave a mark on the region, and that he already has.

When he changed the golf course’s name from the Boothbay Country Club to the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, there were murmured gripes about someone from away coming in and having the gall to fiddle with geography. (Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor are two separate towns. The course is largely in Boothbay.)

The original name, he said, was tied up by the former owner. Coulombe tried to buy it, couldn’t, then chose the next-best, still-online-searchable thing.

“People didn’t understand the legal ramifications, and I didn’t bother to explain it to the town,” he said. “I just did it because we were doing things quickly. Quite honestly, I never assumed that anyone would be offended. I always consider it the ‘Boothbay region.’ To me it’s all one in the same, but clearly there are a lot of people who draw lines between the two communities, which I’m not a supporter of, because I think everyone benefits from having more business and additional tourists, the whole region.”


A summer resident for almost 10 years, and three years into his self-financed, roughly $75 million golf course project, in many ways Coulombe’s still settling in, ignoring critics, batting away the notion of controversy and blasting ahead.

Returning from a bike ride once, he found bicyclists stopped at the end of the gated driveway to his $30 million estate on Pratt’s Island, near Boothbay.

“You know anything about the guy who lives here?” Coulombe said they asked him, adding, “He’s crazy.”

“Why is he crazy, pray tell?” he’d asked back.

They’d heard the owner didn’t actually live in his house but in tunnels underneath. And he never came outside.

“I said, ‘Nice to meet you’ and I went up the driveway,” Coulombe said.


Building, buying in Boothbay

Coulombe, 62, a Lewiston native, made his money at the helm of White Rock, helping grow the family business for 37 years. Then, in two sales, he sold the company for more than $1 billion. White Rock’s Pinnacle Vodka line, now owned by the makers of Jim Beam, is still going strong.

He’d summered in the Boothbay area for several years before building his home, a four-year project, and moving into the main house in 2011.

The first nine holes at the now-Boothbay Harbor Country Club date back to its founding in 1921. The Harris family built the remaining nine about 15 years ago. It had fallen on tough times and didn’t have any outside bidders when it went to a bankruptcy auction in 2012. Coulombe bought it afterward from the bank for $1.4 million. He’s not a huge golfer; Coulombe said he was more worried about its 165 acres being broken up for development and losing the course for the area.

It had two groundskeepers at the time. He added 18 more. Working with a course architect, he hasn’t moved any holes, but a massive overhaul added 500 yards to the course by changing its topography.

By buying up neighbors and neighbors’ neighbors, the country club is up to 275 acres today. Coulombe bought two residential streets to make way for a driving range and the new clubhouse. He also purchased a nearby quarry so he could pump a half-million gallons of water over to the golf course each day.


Membership currently stands at 280, a 50-50 split between locals and summer residents.

Sixty to 100 people work on the project each day, in landscaping, construction and design. Coulombe figures he’s spent $45 million so far and that there’s another five to seven years and up to $30 million left to go.

“I thought it was just an important part of the community, that’s really what motivated me,” he said. “I guess I can’t do anything halfway. It’s not in my makeup.”

The goal isn’t to eventually flip the business; he’s actually left plans in his will to keep it going for 25 to 50 years “in the case of my premature demise.”

Nor is Coulombe shooting to make this the end-all-be-all of golf courses. He concedes that he believes the course will be among the top five in Maine and “the clubhouse will definitely be, no question, the best clubhouse in the state.”

Plans are for mahogany floors, ceilings and wainscoting, with space on the ground floor to plug in the new electric golf carts coming next year. The upper floor will have a dining room, a massive kitchen, changing rooms and a terrace with sweeping views of eight holes.


Out-of-state consultants have told Coulombe that he needs 100 four-star hotel rooms to attract enough visitors from Boston, New York and Connecticut.

“We’re hoping that people come,” Coulombe said. “It’s really about that. Ultimately, having people buy homes, move to Boothbay, create other businesses. Hotels renting more rooms and lobstermen selling more lobster. It’s about having rising tides float all boats. It’s really an economic development more than it is a golf course.”

Around nearby Boothbay Common along Route 27, he’s bought three homes and a cafe that he described as “neglected properties.”

One is down already, the rest will be. He loosely envisions building a cafe, grocery store and boutique, and says he plans to ask for local input when he’s ready.

“It’s about beautification in the community and creating just a pretty place so when people arrive in town for the first time or the 10th time, they’ll be like, ‘Wow,'” Coulombe said.

He said he has no great plans to take over the area or change its essential nature. Concerns to the contrary weren’t helped by a quote in Boston Magazine last month that had Coulombe saying, “Well, my initial dream, all my life, since I’ve been a little boy, has been to own my own town.”


“That’s a little bit of a misquote,” Coulombe said. “I’ve always wanted to create a village or a town (from scratch,) but that’s not what we have here and that wasn’t really my concept. Initially, I didn’t even want to buy the golf course, quite honestly, because I knew what type of project it could be. That’s exactly what happened, larger than I expected.”

He claims the Boston Magazine profile, which set up a Coulombe vs. locals battle of wills, contained a number of errors, among them exaggerating tensions, calling his 29-foot boat a yacht and describing his wife as nearly 20 years younger. (Wife Giselaine is 15 years younger, but, he joked, didn’t mind that particular misprint so much.)

The article’s author didn’t return a message asking about Coulombe’s assertions and whether he’s fielded any request for corrections.

Bet Finocchiaro, the owner of Bet’s Fish Fry, was cast in the story as Coulombe’s biggest adversary. She said she, too, wasn’t portrayed accurately. 

Her colorful stand is located just outside the country club’s new, under-construction entrance. She swapped a few feet of her property with Coulombe in exchange for his putting in a new picnic area in what had been a cat-o-nine-tail-filled swamp.

Finocchiaro said she has encouraged any naysayers to “knock it off, give the man a chance.”


“Look what’s going on here. This little town is dead. I’ve lived here six generations and I want some action,” she said. “He did not buy the town of Boothbay up. They sold it to him! I said no (to Coulombe’s request to buy her business). They could have said no. The people that sold, walking around, ‘Ooh, I should have held out for more money.’ I’m like, ‘You greedy bastards. You’ll take his money.'”

The first controversy: where it all started

One of Coulombe’s first projects in the area was restoring — or really, rebuilding — the former 1777 Southport Town Hall and wharf not too far from his home on Pratt’s Island.

The little white building had been a store, restaurant and one-lane bowling alley for years owned by the Pratt family. When they sold, the town bought it rather than see it developed by someone else.

Then it sat there, starting to fall in.

Gerry Gamage, Southport’s longtime fire chief and chair of the Board of Selectmen, said the town formed a committee to talk about its future and might have replaced the building with a gazebo, eventually.


That’s when Coulombe offered to renovate it for the town and lease it from Southport to use as a restaurant.

At a public hearing, he got a swift “no thank you.”

“That’s where the controversy, I think, started, because it was my idea,” Coulombe said. “I wanted to keep what we always had. I didn’t understand why there would be any opposition to any of it, because it was free. So I thought it was a no-brainer. I didn’t understand some people opposing that viewpoint; I didn’t know there was another viewpoint, but I learned quickly there was.”

Over many hearings leading up to a townwide vote, he won enough residents over to the plan, with restrictions. No music. No advertising. No alcohol. Limited hours.

Coulombe spent nearly $2 million on renovations and opened Oliver’s at Cozy Harbor, named for his grandson, in 2012.

“He ran it the first year and did a top-notch job and proved himself,” Gamage said.


Voters have since OK’d beer and wine and a few more hours of operation and said no to serving malt liquor.

Lobstermen and the public both use the new, sturdy concrete wharf that replaced the dilapidated wooden one. The restaurant serves fresh seafood at tables made from reclaimed bowling alley wood. Fishing rope is used in place of spindles on the stairs and bowling balls have been anchored down as newel posts.

The outside features historically accurate white clapboard with a green roof. For the inside, however, Coulombe picked reds, blue and greens, a palette that reminded him of the Bahamas.

Like the experience with the bicyclists, he came up to the restaurant one day to find a man peeking inside, astounded at the awful colors the new guy had chosen.

Could he believe it? It was horrible.

The man went on and on until Coulombe’s wife nudged him and said, “You’ve got to tell him.”


Clearly, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but a majority of people approved both the town hall project and, later, letting Coulombe foot the $450,000 bill for a new bridge between Pratt’s Island and Southport, Gamage said. (A dozen people live on the island.)

Gamage felt like the magazine article knocked Coulombe and the area. “It basically characterizes us as a bunch of drunks that can hardly get out of our own shadows sometimes,” he said.

“It’s a prideful town, and we don’t thrive on hand-outs, we like to make our own way,” Gamage said. “Having said that, I’m not sure that people would be quick to admit it, but certainly what he’s done for the town and for the region has helped everyone. There’s no getting around it: The money he’s spread around in donations and to build infrastructure has been a boon. It’s more about pride and that sort of thing. A little bit goes a long way, but don’t dangle it in my face, I guess.”

An estate, a wedding and Lionel Richie

Coulombe, who visited Boothbay with his family as a child, said he’s been “madly in love with the water” his whole life.

“My father was the same way, even though he resided in Lewiston,” Coulombe said. “He always said he wanted to buy a house on the ocean and he died before it happened, and so I thought, ‘Well, I’m never going to let that happen to me.'”


And that’s how the summer home Downeast Magazine has called his “Magnum Opus” came about.

The project employed 65 people for four years and Coulombe figures he spent 20 hours a week the whole time on design decisions.

There were a lot of them.

In the main house, the study ceiling is painted to mimic brown leather, chosen because actual leather wouldn’t hold up to hot lights. The ceiling above his bar is painted to mimic a slice of burled wood after the actual slice wasn’t large enough.

In a bathroom tucked under the staircase, there’s an ornate fish faucet, chosen because he’s a Pisces.

Above the front entrance there’s an ornate, gold-leaf chandelier made by the descendants of the same family that built the chandeliers in the Palace of Versailles, Coulombe said. “The family came over here to install it.”


The whole effect is grand, with lots of marble and endless ocean views, but it’s also home to Coulombe, Giselaine, two teenage stepchildren and two dogs.

He and his wife were married on the front lawn in 2012. Lionel Richie played at the wedding. 

“I was always a big fan,” Coulombe said.

Richie, he said, was a great guy.

These days Coulombe spends 20 hours a week on the golf course project and spends time as a philanthropist, donating to the local hospital, YMCA, the library, opera house, Bigelow Labs and to the Cuckolds Lighthouse, where he’s president of the nonprofit board and backed a large part of its massive — and not uncontroversial — $4.5 million renovation.

His only child, daughter Michelle, heads the Coulombe Family Foundation, which also gives away about $500,000 a year.


In 2008, Coulombe and his brothers and sister donated $1.3 million to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, the largest donation ever in the hospital’s history, whose impact is still felt today, according to Lee Myles, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Health System.

The Cecile J. Coulombe Emergency Center, named for their mom, was officially dedicated in May 2010.

In addition to new private exam and critical care rooms, “their philanthropy enabled the creation of the first behavioral emergency suite in the state of Maine, where young children, adolescents and adults with mental health and substance abuse needs can be evaluated in a private and respectful setting,” Myles said. 

Other hospitals, he said, have used it as a model.

Coulombe spent his entire working life at White Rock Distilleries, eventually buying his family out, taking risks and growing a liquor empire.

He didn’t see all of this — now — coming. But that’s OK.


“It’s fun not to have your whole life planned out at all times, I think,” he said. “When you get to the fork, take it. And so, this is retirement.”

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Distillery update

The former White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston has changed hands twice since 2012, once when Paul Coulombe sold it to Beam Inc. and 18 months later when Beam sold it to Sazerac Co.

Coulombe said he didn’t know Beam would sell it, and so quickly.

Under Coulombe, the plant had employed 250 people. It was down to 60 when Sazerac renamed the plant Boston Brands of Maine in March 2014.

Today it’s up to 100 full-time employees and “business is going very well,” said spokeswoman Amy Preske.

The plant specializes in Maine-made, Maine-sold coffee brandy.

“We have not had a chance yet to move ahead with our microdistillery (plans), given the demands of the business, which have exceeded our expectations but do still intend to get to it in the next few years,” Preske said.

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