April 21, 2018
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Thinking, Acting Locally

Piscataquis County officials have been presented with a creative opportunity to shape the region’s economic destiny. Such a “thinking and acting locally” approach is refreshing and encouraging and suggests a course of action for other regions in the state that have uniquely local assets and uniquely local challenges.

The idea came from Greenville Town Manager John Simko. He suggested that county commissioners, the county’s tourism development authority and the county’s economic development council work to create a land trust to acquire land, rights of way and easements to improve the region’s net-work of snowmobile trails. Snowmobiling injects substantial money into the local economy during a time when much of the rest of the state’s tourism businesses are closed and waiting for spring.

The land trust could be funded through a bond purchased by the county, subject to local voter approval. Such a move may be anathema to the view many have of county government in Maine, which is that it exists to manage law enforcement, jails, courts, deeds and other such functions. The only countywide bonds typically seen on ballots are those that pay for new jails and offices. The kind of spending Mr. Simko is proposing is admittedly risky, but it could bring a far greater return than a new jail.

County government has been slow to take on new challenges and new domains, even as municipal government is less able to take on the regional issues such as tourism and other economic development, and even as the state tends to focus its efforts on a larger scale. If Piscataquis County, and es-pecially its county commissioners, endorse this concept, it could be a model for the state’s other 15 county governments to take on more responsibility for economic growth.

“Rather than continually gripe,” Mr. Simko told commissioners, “we need to come together and find a solution and make it a sustainable one.” How refreshing, and how true.

The snowmobile trails are in need of improvements and maintenance, he said; by establishing consistent trail conditions, visitors from around Maine and from out of state will be encouraged to return to the area. Mr. Simko further urged that a marketing campaign be part of the plan.

Borrowing money for a pie-in-the-sky scheme should not be blindly embraced by county officials and voters. A lot of work must be done to arrive at the amount of money needed, and just how it would be allocated. But the approach Mr. Simko suggests is shrewd — focus on a known economic driver, identify its weaknesses, and target improvements.

It could be a model worth replicating.

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