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Downtown Millinocket, 9:30 a.m., a crisp fall morning. The view looking north from Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant Bar and Grill, which closed last year, is dominated by a large “for sale” sign on the commercial property. There are few cars on Penobscot Avenue. There's not a pedestrian in sight.
It has all the appearances of a quiet Sunday morning — except this is a Tuesday and by Maine's early-to-rise standards it's well past the time when a downtown should be coming to life. Several vacant buildings — including one with its windows boarded up, another with a “for rent” sign in the window and a third with a sign stating “For rent, will build out to suit tenant” — reinforce the first impression the town is still reeling from the permanent closures of the Katahdin Region's two paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket that just 30 years ago employed almost 3,000 workers and paid millions in local property taxes. With both mills being demolished and equipment sold for scrap, those days aren't coming back.
Behind the scenes, though, several key Millinocket business owners are diligently working to recreate the region's economy. They see President Obama's creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as a critical first step in those efforts, one that offers a glimmer of hope to once-proud papermaking communities. They're investing in a future, putting both cash and ideas on the table. They recognize it is a long-term transition from the region's papermaking past to a more diverse economy that includes tourism as one of its anchors.
Matt Polstein founded the New England Outdoor Center in 1982 to provide whitewater rafting on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, then expanded in 1995 with a full-service adventure resort on Millinocket Lake that includes lodging, a restaurant and a variety of wildlife tours. He's doubling down on his investment in the region, having purchased a long-vacant building on Penobscot Avenue in a foreclosure auction.
“I was the only bidder for a 5,000-square-foot building that I was able to purchase for $5,000,” Polstein says.
At the time of the purchase, Polstein says he had “no great confidence” that a proposal by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. to turn its vast holdings into a national park or monument would come to pass. He simply wanted to “make sure something positive happened” to a building that was at risk of becoming permanently derelict. He also wanted to add a venue that would encourage visitors to spend more time in downtown Millinocket.
“We know that having an attractive downtown strengthens the quality of the experience we want visitors to have,” he says.
Polstein figures he will spend “a couple hundred thousand dollars” in renovations. When completed, he says, part of the building will become an office for Tom Shaffer's Maine Heritage Timber Co., which is tapping the unique market value of waterlogged wood lining the bottom of a nearby lake, a vestige of log drives to the Great Northern Paper mill. Other possibilities include building modular components of tiny houses there and, perhaps, opening a bike shop once he finishes building a bike trail system.
“It's a statement of our confidence in the future of Millinocket,” he says. “The [national monument] designation brands this region in a way that is going to be a huge jumpstart to efforts already underway. It puts a new spring to our step, a new confidence.”
“We love it, we feel the timing is really good,” says Jessica Masse, who with her husband, John Hafford, purchased the former Wreath Factory building at 135 Penobscot Ave. last year in a strategic decision to relocate their graphic design and social media marketing firm, designlab, to downtown Millinocket. Built in 1925 as home to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the three-story brick building already shows evidence of fresh investment.
Its first-floor office and design studio space is bright and inviting. An adjacent meeting room features a distinctive long wooden table that's been put to good use hosting meetings of local business groups brainstorming ways to diversify and boost the region's economy. Both are thrilled by the designation of an 87,500-acre national monument along the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
“We've been working very hard to get people onboard in seeing the positive side of attracting more tourists to this region,” says Hafford. “But I've talked to no one in this region who thinks the only thing we're going to do to rebuild our local economy is tourism.”
“The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is not the answer to this region's problems,” Masse quickly adds. “But it is part of the solution. It's an important part of the diversification of the local economy that has to happen here.”
Hafford and Masse both hail from Aroostook County. With a background in fine art and illustration, Hafford headed several successful business ventures before becoming the director of marketing for ATX Forms Inc., a tax preparation and tax research software firm in Caribou that sold for more than $40 million in 2002.
After the sale, he created designlab, which over the last decade has developed a portfolio of design and branding campaign clients that include Dunkin' Donuts, L.L.Bean, Four Seasons Resort, the National Park Service, Evian and Hotel Belair. Masse brings a background in business and science to her role as director of business development, having worked in research at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Without explicitly saying it about themselves, Hafford and Masse clearly hope they are the vanguard of a shift in the trend of residents leaving the Katahdin Region to find their fortunes elsewhere.
“Being part of the creative economy, we could have located anywhere,” she says, noting that she and her husband were drawn to the Katahdin Region by its world-class scenic beauty, its limitless recreational opportunities, the small-town feeling of Millinocket and the opportunity to be part of a grassroots rebuilding effort that they both recognize is just getting underway.
Since relocating to Millinocket, Hafford and Masse have immersed themselves in working with a number of local business and community development groups to get a dialogue going on how to rebrand the Katahdin Region and build some momentum to capitalize on the national monument designation. A critical step, they say, is to expand high-speed internet access as a way of luring entrepreneurs who, like themselves, can work anywhere.
“The fact this is going to be put on a map of the National Park Service is huge,” Hafford says. “Their brand is global.”
North Light Gallery, founded by artist Marsha Donahue in 2004, is located at intersection of Penobscot Avenue and the road leading to the entrance to Baxter State Park 16 miles away. The gallery features several of Donahue's bold large-scale oil paintings inspired by the region's mountains and numerous lakes, as well as watercolors, photographs and prints, ceramics and high-end crafts by 12 well-known interior Maine artists. Donahue and Polstein were joined by Anita Mueller of Moose Prints Gallery and Gail Fanjoy, president of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce, as Katahdin Region advocates honored last month by the Natural Resources Council of Maine as “conservation leaders” for their efforts in support of the national monument.
“Businesses turned the tide,” Donahue says of the long and often divisive local debate over Roxanne Quimby and her son Lucas St. Clair's efforts to gain national park or monument status for their Elliotsville Plantation holdings. “We hosted meetings once a month in the gallery, sketching out the whole thing. We absolutely believe it's going to have a positive economic effect. It's all part of a quiet master plan to make this more of a recreation destination area.”
Like Hafford and Masse, Donahue says she chose to live in Millinocket — in her case, after a long artistic career painting landscapes and working in art galleries in Portland and Washington, D.C. The scenic beauty of the Katahdin Region's mountains, woods and waters is an obvious reason, but she also was lured by Millinocket's “vibe.”
“It's like going back to the '50s, when everything was slower,” she says. “It took me back to my childhood almost … Sometimes you feel like you land at the right place at the right time. That's how it feels to me.”
“We have visitors from all over the world,” adds her husband and North Light Gallery co-owner, Wayne Curlew. “We've seen the local population declining … that's what spurred us to work so hard for this.”
“People don't understand how a patch of woods can be important to people,” Donahue says. “This is an opportunity for people of all ages to get off their phones, get off the grid and connect with nature. It ends up telling people where they come from in a most profound way.”
A short walk away, at the Moose Prints Gallery owned by Anita Mueller and Mark Picard, there's ample evidence of the region's signature wildlife species, the moose. Both are wildlife photographers who sell their stunning moose images at the gallery and through an online shop to collectors throughout the world. They also offer four-day photography workshops that take advantage of the nearby scenic beauty of Baxter State Park, and now, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
“We promote our workshops as combining a relaxing Maine vacation with a creative learning experience,” she says. “We're convinced the national monument will increase the amount of visitor spending per day. Do I hope the forest products industries have a resurgence in the area? Absolutely. We need a diversified economy. But we're a forest-based business too. If you look at our imagery, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the beauty of Maine's woods and waters.”
The same could be said of Paul and Jaime Renaud, whose Appalachian Trail Lodge and AT Café cater to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. The lodge can accommodate 32 hikers and the café provides solid home-style fare for hungry visitors and hikers who are about to scale Katahdin as the final challenge of their 2,180-mile hike from Georgia. They purchased both properties in 2007, after Jaime completed his AT hike the prior year. They fell in love with the region and decided to move up from Georgia to create a full-service venue for hikers that includes a shuttle service to and from Baxter park.
Both Renauds say the national monument is bound to bring new visitors to the region, helping both their lodge and café and local businesses. But it will take time.
“If we can get 10% to 15% of what Acadia gets within the next 15 years it will be great for this area,” Paul Renaud says.