Piscataquis County’s poverty runs deep

Posted May 18, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:13 p.m.

GUILFORD, Maine — Amber Gahagan knows the face of poverty in Piscataquis County.

The SAD 41 social worker in the Milo area said some families in her district have no running water or electricity.

“It’s not much unlike the whole Appalachia kind of family things,” Gahagan said. The families often live in groups of campers or mobile homes in areas not reached by paved roads.

On one such visit, Gahagan recalled, a resident moved a rug, exposing a hole in the floor and a rope. The rope was attached to a jug of milk kept beneath the mobile home to avoid spoilage, she said. At another home, a young girl lived in a bedroom whose roof had collapsed. “She had mushrooms growing on the walls in her bedroom,” she said.

Gahagan also recalled that a youngster had burns on her belly because she came too close to the family’s old-fashioned kerosene heater, the home’s only source of heat.

These families, like others, are too proud to ask for help and are trying to make do with the few dollars they have, according to Gagahan.

The SAD 41 staff and the town do what they can to get the families help, she said. Blankets and clothing have been delivered and the district has made special arrangements so children from such homes can shower and study at school.

When staff members learned that some children didn’t like weekends and vacations because of hunger at home, volunteers initiated a backpack program funded by contributions. Now every Milo Elementary School pupil takes home a backpack of food each Friday.

While she recognizes that state officials are looking to save money, Gagahan shudders at discussions about reducing the school week from five days to four. It would mean one less day these pupils would be safe, she said.

Job losses, aging population

Poverty is well-known in this rural county of 3,966 square miles. More than 53 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunches versus the state average of 38.9 percent, according to the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council.

The situation has been made worse by the closing of manufacturing plants in the county.

“This is a very difficult time for Piscataquis County,” John Dorrer, director of the Maine Center for Workforce Research & Information, said recently.

The county has slow population growth and an aging population, he said.

It also has the highest unemployment rate in the state. The county’s rate for March was 13.5 percent, compared to the state average of 8.9 percent, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Of the county’s 7,480 workers, 1,010 were unemployed in March, the latest figures available.

Dorrer said that from 2000 to 2007, the county lost 490 manufacturing jobs, which were replaced by 475 lower-paying jobs in the service sector, a trend he expects will continue.

These changeovers can create very formidable challenges for those caught in the crossfire — older employees who tend to be at their peak earning years, Dorrer said.

“If you are a 55-year-old manufacturing employee, and you’ve got 30 years of your life invested in doing a particular job and using a particular set of skills, and all of a sudden a job comes along in a real estate office, it isn’t an easy match financially,” Dorrer said.

Tina Smith, 51, of Guilford knows the challenges posed by such a disruption in life. She’s been laid off three times because of mill closings or downsizing; from the Hathaway shirt plant in Dover-Foxcroft in 1986, from Pride Manufacturing Co. in Guilford in 2005, and most recently from True Textiles Inc. in Guilford. On Friday the U.S. Department of Labor announced it had approved a $462,096 grant to assist about 100 workers laid off from the True Textiles plants in Guilford and Newport.

Recognizing there is little prospect for another good-paying manufacturing job, Smith since has enrolled at Beal College in Bangor to study for a career in mental health.

“It’s frustrating, but I look at it as one door closes, another opens up,” Smith said. “I don’t have a negative attitude; it’s not doing any good to sit around and mope about it.”

Families are not alone in facing tough times. The county’s towns and plantations depend heavily upon federal assistance to upgrade their aging infrastructure, said Thomas Kittredge, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council.

In recent years, the council has received $1.3 million in grants for the county, plus a $475,000 congressional earmark for a sewer extension to the Milo Industrial Park. Since the countywide need is so great, eight earmarks were submitted this spring for federal stimulus funds.

Highway and rail improvements, better broadband Internet service, stronger economic incentives and lower taxes would help entice new businesses and give a boost to existing ones, Kittredge said. The county has a great quality of life, an ample wood supply and hardworking people, all assets that should help drive the economy, which must be diversified, he said.

Kittredge said tourism and advanced wood products are good niche markets.

“We can’t be all things to all people. If we try to attract all types of businesses, we’re not going to be very focused,” he said, adding that the county needs to find its competitive advantage, lobby to improve its infrastructure and continue to make its needs known.

“This county’s socioeconomic demographics have not exactly been stellar in its history, and that’s the cause of us wanting to get everybody’s attention,” said Roger Merchant, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator and Piscataquis Tourism Task Force member.

“If we’re holding the glass half empty and it’s emptying, that’s a pretty scary proposition — it’s pretty disheartening,” Merchant said, referring to the county’s economic health.

Although there has been much work done to move the county forward, there’s still much to be done, he said. The county needs to reconsider its strategy and include innovation, investments, preservation of its natural assets and increased availability of high-speed Internet access to compete in the larger economy, he stated.

Improved Internet access is equally important to the county’s schools.

“The critical key component is high-speed broadband Internet access for everybody,” SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns said recently. Just as rivers were the first commercial highways, followed by pavement, fiber optic communications will be the future highways, he said.

“We want to rely a lot on tourism and crafts, and that’s important, but I think side by side we could have some very powerful, financial-type Internet work done in our area,” Stearns said. “When the jobs come, the enrollment follows.”

Diversification will be key to the county’s success, said John Richardson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. With an upgrade in the rail system, the region could re-emerge as a strong specialized food basket for the Boston area, especially since the Obama administration considers rail an important strategy for improving infrastructure, he said.

Until then, the county needs to look at its natural advantages such as forest products, tourism, hospitality and produce, Richardson said. He said it is “critically” important that county residents decide what they want for the future and then demand assistance from the government.

Help from the state

The state could do more to help the general economy, according to Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and Sen. Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft. The state needs to change its regulations, craft a better tax code, and improve the highways, which in the long run will help Piscataquis County, they said.

Even in good times, the county hasn’t been able to catch up and it’s primarily because it hasn’t attracted capital, Davis said. There are plenty of government and mental health field jobs that are funded through taxes, but it also needs more private-sector jobs, he said.

“The real problem is not Piscataquis County, Aroostook County or Washington County or any of the other rural counties. The real problem is that the foundation for economic growth in this state, the policies that are the foundation for economic growth, [need] changes,” Smith said. “We essentially have anti-growth policies in Maine.”

The Maine Development Foundation’s 2009 measures of growth show that for the most part, Maine’s economy is underperforming compared to both New England and the nation as a whole, Smith said. Even in the boom years from 2004 to 2006, the state was barely able to keep above recession levels in terms of gross domestic product growth, he said.

The entire state has to be healthy for growth to take place in Piscataquis County, agreed Laurie Lachance, a native of the county and president of the Maine Development Foundation.

Much can be done within the county lines to help the local economy, Lachance said. Thoughtful marketing of the county’s natural attributes such as Gulf Hagas would help the economy, she said. Given the heritage of lumbering in the county, it could be home to new forms of energy production and new uses of wood fiber — whether it’s in composites, biofuels or various wood technologies.

The county needs to look past its barriers, adopt a can-do attitude, and think differently from the way things have been done historically, Lachance said.

That is being done by the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, the county’s Tourism Task Force and projects such as the Villages of Piscataquis County, said County Commissioner Tom Lizotte.

For example, he said, county officials are looking into entrepreneurial opportunities based on the University of Maine’s wood composites research.

Another project is cultural heritage tourism, but a lack of accommodations is a stumbling block, Lizotte said. An inland resort similar to the Samoset is needed, he said. While the county continues to work to bring investments and visitors to the region, the state needs to do its share, he added.

“Maine does an extremely poor job of marketing itself as a vacation destination, especially for a state that has Vacationland on its license plates,” Lizotte said. When the state increased its tourism budget a few years ago, the return was outstanding, he noted.

It also hasn’t helped that roads have deteriorated and the state closed basic services in the county, such as the local Department of Health and Human Services and career center offices, Lizotte said. Then there’s the potential for the county jail to be closed, and school consolidation, both of which have a major impact in rural areas, he said.

“What I see as times get tight in terms of finances, the state has almost adopted a default policy of removing services from rural areas,” Lizotte said. “This is troubling to me because you need a certain level of service to have a viable community. If you remove some of those services, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You begin to lose population because the services are no longer there to support the population.”

Piscataquis County residents are strong, they’ve been through hard times before, they’re self-reliant, and they know how to make do with less, Lizotte said. “I think there’s a solidarity there — they are survivors.”

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