MILLINOCKET, Maine — Reports of the demise of Central Street Market are exaggerated, but not by much, its owner said Monday.
Tim Darling said he finds himself in the same position most Katahdin region businesspeople are in. His customer traffic and profits are declining and his costs are rising. He hopes that the region’s two paper mills will restart and environmentalist Roxanne Quimby will be granted her wish of turning 70,000 acres she owns next to Baxter State Park into a national park.
But he doesn’t know when either thing will happen, if ever, and he is not about to leave Millinocket, as his family also owns the Baxter Park Inn adjacent to the convenience store.
“We have a vested interest here,” Darling said Monday, saying that his family’s hotel, the former Heritage Motor Inn, has been on the town’s tax rolls for 20 years. “We’re so vested here that it is impossible to leave. That’s why it’s so frustrating.”
Darling is one of many businesspeople in the region who support a feasibility study of Quimby’s proposal, he said. He finds it vexing that the Town Council voted 6-0 last week to oppose a study and the park plan itself.
In approving their resolve, councilors cited fears of damaging state efforts to revitalize the region’s two paper mills, which if restarted could employ about 600 people; of granting federal government control and tax-exempt status to the 70,000 acres and harming forest products industry lands; and of the park growing much larger than 70,000 acres. They also expressed doubts that the proposed lands would be much of a draw.
Darling said he found councilors’ actions absurd.
“I think it’s absurd that the Town Council didn’t support at least taking a closer look at the plan,” he said. “From what I know, everybody in business along Central Street wanted to at least see the study done. More information can never hurt and yet our Town Council chose to fly in the face of every business that’s here that pays taxes.”
During the meeting, businessman and former Councilor Matthew Polstein, a friend of Darling’s, said the market would close in a week or two. That’s not true now, Darling said, but it was when Polstein said it.
A resolve might not have huge practical meaning — it is simply a statement of political will — but Darling wanted Quimby to get the right signal from town residents. He believes that a national park would benefit his business, yet the paper mills have been mainstays for him, too, even after Millinocket’s paper mill closed in 2008 and East Millinocket’s mill was the region’s sole papermaker.
Many of East Millinocket’s workers were from Millinocket, “and they had to drive right by here to get to work every day,” Darling said.
His store manager, Amanda Austin, said store traffic fell off dramatically when the East Millinocket mill closed in April. It lagged through the winter snowmobile season — snowmobiling being a heavy regional tourist draw — and tourism traffic has been slow so far this summer, too, so much so that she manned the store herself.
“At this time of day,” she said of 2 p.m., “we used to have two people working. It would be busy.”
A mills revitalization and a national park are complementary, not mutually exclusive, Darling said. The Katahdin region, he said, could use both, but it will have to wait. State officials continue to court possible investors in the two mills, with hopes that a buyer could restart the mills within several months or a year of making a deal.
No one, Darling said, has any idea whether the mill restarts would employ 600 people. What if, he wondered, the mills employed a fraction of that number?
And under Quimby’s best-case scenario, a national park would be created in 2016.
So what’s a business owner to do? Darling cut back his store hours. Once open from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., the market now will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and his redemption center will be closed Sundays.
He hopes that he can get enough business over the summer and fall to avoid yet another fallback plan: closing his business from October to January.
“We,” Austin said, “are just trying to hang on.”