MILLINOCKET, Maine — At the urging of the state’s top economic development official, Katahdin region leaders agreed Thursday to form a regional economic development board to handle a $75,000 regional economic development payment and other expected money.
John Richardson, head of the Maine Economic and Community Development Department, told the Joint Municipal Elected Officials Board that a regional approach was the surest way the Katahdin region could secure aid to help offset the temporary closing of the Millinocket paper mill on Sept. 2. As of Thursday, about 125 of 208 millworkers were laid off.
“I do think in some respects it is not just about Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket,” Richardson said during a meeting at Stearns High School. “The economic impact [of the mill closure] is broader than even these three towns.”
Besides agreeing to have the first economic subcommittee meeting on Dec. 16, the joint board members expressed support Thursday for using the $75,000 to help pay for a multiuse recreational bridge just outside Millinocket. No vote was taken.
The bridge would be part of the region’s first ATV trail network and thus help bring money into the region during warm seasons. About $125,000 of its $200,000 cost is raised, Millinocket Town Councilor John Raymond said.
Richardson’s meeting came out of acrimony among Katahdin region officials in late October over the $75,000 that Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. paid to Millinocket as compensation for the Brookfield-owned mill shutdown. But the annual payment was to go “to the economic development body serving the Katahdin region” per an agreement between Brookfield and Millinocket signed in 2002.
Leaders in the other towns expressed indignation that Millinocket had been designated the region’s new economic development agency by DECD and that the town had received the money on Oct. 8 before any other area communities had been made aware. They accused Millinocket leaders of bad faith and arrogance.
Some Millinocket officials, believing their town should get most of the money because it was most damaged by the closure, called the other towns “vultures” for trying to secure some money for themselves.
During Thursday’s meeting, Richardson compared the towns’ animosity to what Brunswick endured when its military base closed years ago. Brunswick officials felt their town was hurt worst, but studies showed the closure damaged 14 communities, many far from Brunswick, he said.
Brunswick has received hundreds of thousands of dollars of economic aid. It will get more from DECD and other agencies — including the powerful federal Northern Border Commission created by Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, which is due to be funded next year — because it sees beyond parochialism, Richardson said.
“What is scoring highest and being rewarded the most is regional cooperation,” he said.
Wallace Paul, David Dickey and Mark Scally, chairmen of the boards of selectmen of Millinocket, Medway and East Millinocket respectively, apologized for the name-calling.
“If we said something out of line, I will apologize for that,” Dickey said.
They agreed to work together to help the towns mend their political differences and restore the job losses caused by the mill shutdown.
“What we can do is put ourselves above it,” Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore said of the acrimony. “The animosity between communities has been rooted and has been there for years and years. We need to make a committal to get past this.”
Unlike Magic and other previous Katahdin economic agencies, the new regional economic development board will be a government-run thing with town workers working for it, Scally said.
“It’s not an organization that needs to be funded,” Scally said.