UMaine students aim to draw tourists to Milo area

Posted Feb. 20, 2011, at 8:56 p.m.

MILO, Maine — A group of University of Maine students is working to bring recommendations to Milo and Brownville about tourism development in wake of a similar community service project in Greenville last year.

The project is the brainchild of Roger Merchant, a UM Cooperative Extension agent who has long worked to help improve the Piscataquis County tourism infrastructure. A couple of years ago, Merchant was transferred from the Piscataquis County Extension Office in Dover-Foxcroft to UMaine’s Orono campus where he continues to work on community and tourism development. He also teaches a spring community tourism planning class, through a cooperative agreement with the School of Forest Resources.

While information and speakers are important in a class, Merchant said, so are community service projects. “They get to sink their teeth into something,” he said Friday.

Merchant worked with the Brownville area on tourism about six years ago when a tourism attractions inventory was conducted. That inventory looked at natural resources, cultural heritage, arts and events, and assets and attractions in the town. About three years later, Merchant was involved with a similar project for Milo, he said, adding it just seemed natural to continue on that line of work, this time engaging students in the process.

His class of 18 juniors and seniors has met twice with the Milo and Brownville communities to learn how residents feel about visitors, how they view their communities as a tourist destination, and whether residents are open to tourism development, according to Merchant.

The second gathering in Milo was held Wednesday.

“We had a really good, rich, I would say, 2½-hour conversation with folks from Milo and Brownville,” Merchant said.

The students have done online investigations about the region to see what’s offered for tourism and what is or isn’t visible.

Last year, Merchant’s class went to Greenville and played winter visitors.

“They had what we call a first impression — it’s a protocol for secret visitors to go into a community and assess how things are in terms of public services for visitors, hospitality, and so the students immersed themselves in that kind of community activity,” Merchant said.

In addition to their visit to Greenville, the students researched tourism development before reporting their findings and recommendations to the community at the end of the semester.

“The thing that came right to the top about Greenville from the students’ perspective and experience with it was that the local people in the restaurants and the shops were very welcoming, very friendly, and very informed about what to do and where to go,” Merchant said.

On the other hand, the students found that visitors to the town are overwhelmed by the signage, which sometimes can be confusing.

Merchant said the community service component not only helps the communities, but it also contributes community knowledge to the students.

Based on their research and their meetings with residents, the students will summarize their findings for Milo and Brownville residents on April 20.

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