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Shack Hill has been empty since Great Northern Paper moved its residents off the mill land a century ago.
On a recent day, a CAT tractor sat on the new gravel road on the forested hill — a small sign of big things happening both on the 1,400-acre mill site and in Millinocket.
In the 1980s, Great Northern planned to put a new mill on top of Shack Hill. The plan died when Georgia Pacific acquired the company in 1989, kicking off a slide that ended when the mill closed for good in September 2008.
Great Northern had built its mill on the West Branch of the Penobscot River more than a century ago, then built a town around it. The story of town's decline — loss of population, homes, businesses — was so stark it even made the New York Times.
Now Millinocket has a new story to tell. “Ten years ago, we were the poster town for what happens when your mill closes,” says Jessica Masse, who owns Designlab on Penobscot Avenue with her husband, John Hafford. “Now we're the poster town for what you can do about it.”
At the heart of the story is the mill site, now an industrial park, renamed One Katahdin.
“All the infrastructure is going up here,” says Steve Sanders, director of mill site development for owners Our Katahdin, as he sits in his pickup truck on the top of Shack Hill. “It's great for development. There are a lot of good things about this land.”
The first big news for the site came in February, when LignaTerraCLT Maine announced it will build a 300,000-square-foot cross laminated timber production plant there. The company projects 100 jobs in the next five years.
At press time, One Katahdin was waiting for word on a $6 million Economic Development Authority grant that would help pay for the infrastructure.
While the focus for the site is wood fiber businesses, other businesses are welcome. A data center is planned, aquaculture is possible and “a whole slew of other things” have been proposed, Sanders says. “We've probably talked to 50 companies.”
Lucy Van Hook, Our Katahdin community development director, says sustaining economic growth through having many businesses is the goal. “Previously, one company owned the mill site, they built the mill and everyone worked there,” she says.
Sanders, a lifelong town resident, says, “We know what happens when you put your eggs in one basket.”
In 2011, New Hampshire-based Cate Street Capital bought the mill, as well as the one in East Millinocket. Promises to develop the site never materialized.
By the time Cate razed the smokestacks, the town was close to rock bottom.
An August 2014 New York Times article read like an obituary: “In some ways, the town seems as if it has frozen, with little economic growth to replace what was lost.”
Urban planning consultant Charles Buki, of CZB LLC in Alexandria, Va., was moved by the article, and his firm did a pro-bono analysis. The result was a tough blow.
“The road ahead will not be easy,” Buki wrote in an open letter to the town in January 2015, published in Down East magazine that March. He said improvement meant “fundamental change,” including not focusing on things like the tax rate, but on what work was being done in the community and why.
“You have to dig deeper than you have become accustomed to, and you have to start polishing Millinocket — its streets and sidewalks and homes and riverfront — on your own nickel. You have to improve your attitude towards the outside world.”
While some felt scolded, others in town were already getting started.
In December 2014, Our Katahdin was formed as a nonprofit that promotes “small wins.”
The first project, led by residents Dave and Nancy DeWitt, was a crowdfunded renovation of the dilapidated downtown bandstand built by Great Northern a century before. The Christmas tree lighting at the bandstand that year has come to symbolize the town's resurgence.
Dave DeWitt, who spent 41 years at the mill, says there were people in town who knew even then what it would take to move forward.
“Looking at things in a new way is what's going to make the town change,” he remembers telling his son Sean, a founder and president of Our Katahdin. “There ain't going to be any more paper-making.”
Efforts have included those little wins, not only in Millinocket, but in nearby Medway and in East Millinocket, whose mill closed in 2014.
They also include big things, like Our Katahdin buying the mill site for $1 in January 2017, taking on its $1.4 million IRS bill and another $160,000 owed to the town.
“One of the things we're doing is providing a platform for community involvement,” Van Hook, of Our Katahdin, says. The goal is to make the region “a nice fertile space,” including a move to bring high-speed internet to the three towns.
One of the biggest wins is the library, which closed for three months in 2015 when the town ran out of money to operate it. It reopened after an emergency $30,000 fundraising campaign.
The library is now gearing up for a $1.5 million renovation, sparked by a $500,000 Next Generation Foundation grant.
The library has also opened Gearhub downtown, which lends its 29 mountain bikes to anyone with a library card, and has workshops, training and information on where to bike.
Library Director Matt DeLaney says the program is a way for the library to be part of downtown's growth while also enriching the community. While it may seem an odd function for a library, it fits, he says.
“When communities fall on hard times, that's when libraries become most important,” he says. “It's the mission of a library to enrich lives, empower, inspire and build the community.”
Much of the focus is on attracting young people who will help grow and sustain the economy.
Our Katahdin's Van Hook is one of those transplants. She moved to town in 2015.
“There definitely was a sense of despair,” she says. Soon, though, she noticed, “There were new conversations happening. There were these cracks of light.”
DeLaney and his wife, Emily, lived in upstate New York, and he was looking for a library director job in an area with a slow pace and outdoors opportunities, but where he could also make a difference.
“When we saw Millinocket, there was no question,” he says. They fell in love with the area's beauty, but he also liked the challenge.
“I'd never been to a place where its identity seemed so clear, then it's shattered,” he says. Millinocket had a new story to tell and he could be part of it.
The resurgence, though, is largely on the shoulders of those already in town.
On a recent day, Sanders, DeWitt and Paul Carney, who is in charge of maintaining the mill site, contemplate the massive Paper Machine 11 building.
Built in 1971, it's one of the few structures left — 140,000 square feet of steel and concrete. One Katahdin is hoping to find a new user.
As the men discussed the years since the mill closed, they say the biggest change they see is attitude.
“You don't hear the negative talk,” DeWitt says. “People are opening businesses, things are going to happen, and people are seeing that.”
“There was a desire to come back in some way,” Sanders says. “There's an unbelievable connection for people who grew up in this place. People were willing, they just needed to be shown it could be done.”