Fort Kent to pursue Acadian Congress

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 8:13 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Let Operation “Charm” commence. From now until March 30 an international committee representing towns, cultural groups and civic organizations in northern Maine and western New Brunswick will work together on an application to act as host to the 2014 World Acadian Congress.

“This project will bring the Acadian people together,” said Jacques Martin, mayor of Edmundston, New Brunswick. “This will not just be for a party but for well-structured exchanges.”

Martin was speaking at a meeting of interested individuals from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border Thursday night at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Martin is president of the Forum of Mayors of Northwestern New Brunswick, one of the lead groups in the application process.

The joint application covering venues in two countries is the first such international attempt.

The final decision will be announced by the Societe National de l’Acadie next August.

If successful in its application, the northern Maine-western New Brunswick organizing group intends to take full advantage of the two universities located within its area with UMFK and a branch campus of the University of Moncton in Edmundston, New Brunswick.

“We know this is a multimillion-dollar operation,” Martin said. “But it could swell to bring in $30 million.”

The first congress was held in 1994 in Moncton, New Brunswick. Five years later the follow-up event in Louisiana attracted 300,000 people.

Quebec City and Lafayette, La., are applying to be host of the 2014 Acadian World Congress.

“Do we have what it takes to pull this off?” Martin asked.

Edmundston artist and musician Etienne Deschenes believes the area does and is willing to head up the application project to prove it.

“We are talking about involving 30 municipalities and 200 associations and committees on both sides of the border,” Deschenes said. “We will join in a common project for the region.”

Joining will come with a price.

Deschenes estimates the cost of the application — which includes the hiring of consultants, production of a promotional video, and a small salary for himself — to be between $40,000 and $65,000.

To fund it, each participating community has been asked to contribute $1 per capita.

Edmundston, for example, already has committed $16,000.

The payoff with a successful application, Deschenes said, is the worldwide exposure of this area as a tourist and cultural destination.

“Acadians are all over the globe,” he said. “I know we will get many coming here for the congress.”

When it comes to benefits locally, Deschenes said being co-hosts at a congress in northern Maine could exponentially increase the opportunities available in terms of the area’s heritage.

“In Moncton before the first congress in 1994 there was not much French spoken there and no Acadian flags,” he said. “Now there is real pride in being Acadian and the French language is everywhere.”

Lasting a month each congress includes up to 300 activities, conferences, cultural events, economic discussions and even sporting venues.

Before that can happen, Deschenes said, the application committee must first convince the selection committee of the advantages of holding a world congress in this region.

“We have to sell ourselves,” Deschenes said. “It’s a seduction thing [and] we need to begin ‘Operation Charm.’”

Members of the selection committee are unknown to the applicants until the actual site visits take place later this year.

If accepted as a host region, Deschenes said the cost of putting on the event could run upwards of $10 million.

“If we get it, those funds will come to us,” he promised, noting other host areas secured major sponsorships and private contributions.

Funding for the application process, Deschenes said, is needed “As soon as possible” which could pose a bit of a problem for the Maine municipalities whose budgets were allocated during the 2008 round of town meetings.

But local leaders are ready to get creative.

“The way our budget process works I can include the request for funds and ask our council to submit it to the budget committee,” said Ryan Pelletier, St. Agatha town manager. “If the budget committee approves it, it would go to the voters at the town meeting on March 31.”

In the meantime, Pelletier said he might be able to use funds within a reserve account set aside for festivals.

“I think having the congress here is an excellent idea,” Pelletier said. “It’s an excellent opportunity for the region with a lot of potential.”

Downriver in Madawaska, home of the annual Acadian Festival, Town Manager Christina Therrien agrees.

“I agree this region is the perfect location to host this event,” Therrien said. “We are the center and heart of Acadian culture.”

Therrien said she would take the per capita funding request to her board, which may opt to schedule a special town meeting to release the funds.

She also hopes residents throughout the St. John Valley let their town officials know they support the project.

“The town councils need to know the people are behind this,” Therrien said. “That kind of feedback is great.”

There is no doubt in Martin’s mind the region is more than capable of staging the international event.

“I’m sure we can do it,” he said. “If we do it from the heart.”

For Pelletier, it’s a natural fit.

“We say there are two kinds of people in the St. John Valley,” he said. “Those who are Acadians and those who wish they were Acadians. We just have to sell that.”

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