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In 2014, Jessica Masse and John Hafford were looking for a building for their marketing business, designlab. The Aroostook County natives were part-time Mainers, but wanted to be full-time.
They'd narrowed the search to Bangor and Millinocket.
In December 2014 they had yet to make a decision as they stood in a crowd gathered to watch the Christmas lighting at the downtown Millinocket gazebo.
The town was in a downward economic spiral. The paper mill in East Millinocket shut down for good that past February and Millinocket's mill, which closed in 2008, had been razed in August. Newspapers, including The New York Times earlier that year, published articles about Millinocket that read like obituaries.
“Morale was very low,” Masse says.
The gazebo revitalization was the first project by Our Katahdin, a nonprofit that advocates “small wins” using crowd-sourced funding and volunteers.
A lot rested on the refurbished gazebo strung with 750 LED bulbs and housing a 10-foot Christmas tree. When the lights went on, “the town had this moment,” Masse says. That spark of hope gripped Masse and Hafford, too.
Today, Masse and Hafford, partners in business and in marriage, are running a thriving graphic design firm in the Millinocket's former Odd Fellows hall, which they bought in March 2015.
Masse's eyes shine when she talks about the gazebo moment. “Honest to god, it was the difference between us choosing Bangor,” she says.
Hafford, a designer and entrepreneur, started designlab in 2004, working from home. Masse has been an information analyst for The Jackson Laboratory and managed a laboratory at Harvard Medical School.
She's effusive about Hafford's creative passion. He admires her advocacy and willingness to take risks. But they're more interested in talking about Millinocket.
When designlab opened, the town was still smarting from a January 2015 report by Charles Buki, an economic consultant with Alexandria, Va.-based CZB, which offered a no-nonsense assessment about what the town had to do to survive.
Masse says the report, and other economic development experts, stress that big keys to revitalization are outside investment and local champions who won't take no for an answer.
Masse and Hafford turned out to be both.
They have put $200,000 into renovating the 92-year-old Odd Fellows hall, and let community groups use the conference room for free. Their two children, ages 4 and 5, attend area schools, and they say they intend to live in the region for the rest of their lives.
Designlab's clients have included L.L.Bean and Dunkin' Donuts, as well as Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Shin Pond Village and the town of Millinocket.
Buki says Masse and Hafford are “a great catch.”
“John and Jessica bring to Millinocket everything the Maine interior needs more of: A science and technology background, networks in the biomedical community, design and innovation expertise, entrepreneurial energy and a deep reservoir of enthusiasm,” Buki says.
The pair, along with innovative Millinocket business owners Matt Polstein at New England Outdoor Center and Tom Shafer of Maine Heritage Timber, “are the core of Maine's promising future,” he says.
Hafford said he thought Allagash, his hometown, “was the most special place in the world,” until he discovered four or five places just as special in the Katahdin region over the years. So he wasn't afraid to take a chance when the time came. “You can talk until you're blue in the face about the possibilities, but someone has to do it,” he says.
In August 2015, they formed Katahdin Revitalization with state Rep. Steve Stanley, D-Medway, and area residents Wally Paul and Deb Roundtree. The volunteer group looks for ways to provide direct services that will have an impact in Millinocket, Medway and East Millinocket.
When the group formed, the debate over what is now Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was raging.
“The park issue was so divisive,” Hafford says. “There were all sorts of things that needed to be done, but the park issue would take over.”
Katahdin Revitalization removed the park from the conversation and it became easy to move forward.
The town was still raw from recent events. “They'd been No. 1 in the world. Then to see the stacks come down. Brutal,” Hafford says. The group not only had to figure out what steps to take toward economic recovery, “but how to do it when the mill is being picked apart like a chicken carcass, and it hurts.”
“Community resiliency had been damaged,” Masse adds. “You can have economic development, but if you don't have community resiliency, it's not going to click.”
Designlab was the first business downtown to install fiber optic internet; others are following. Turn the Page, a book store and wine bar, opened in the former Pelletier Family American Loggers restaurant, which closed in August 2015. Other businesses have opened in downtown. Our Katahdin is renovating the building that once housed Miller's department store building, once a Penobscot Avenue anchor.
The pair envision a near future with a coffee shop, maybe a brewery. Restaurants and other businesses will follow.
“Investors from out of town are really interested,” Hafford says. “You don't necessarily see it in the storefronts, but you will in five years.”