MACHIAS, Maine — A businesswomen’s forum with Ann LePage, Maine’s first lady, may have been held at the Bragdon Kelly Funeral Home on Thursday night, but there was nothing depressing about the message she heard.
Although there were some suggestions about what changes could be made on the state level to better serve Washington County — from reliable cell phone service and increased Internet access to a public restroom on U.S. Route 1 — nearly every person that addressed LePage put forth a positive image of the county and shared stories of promise and success.
Barbara Drisko of the Washington County Development Authority said that one of the biggest problems with Washington County’s image is the way people outside the county perceive it.
“We have such pockets of success that no one knows about,” Drisko said. “We have much to be proud of. Mrs. LePage, this evening, when you say good night to the governor, please tell him how great we are.”
Kehben Grifter of the Beehive Design Collective said she was enticed to relocate to Machias in 1997.
“I like places with potential, integrity, and I like the challenge of pushing boulders uphill,” Grifter said. “A big feature of this county is all the women making change and promoting growth. It is phenomenal.”
Grifter said if she had a request of the governor, it would be “to honor this place.”
She said it was important to not just slap blanket ideas on Washington County.
“There are brilliant, observant people here paying attention to this place, many of them women,” Grifter said. “People here know what they need. Listen to them.”
The forum was sponsored by the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce as an opportunity for local businesswomen to talk with LePage. Chamber director Kathy Howell took LePage on an afternoon tour of the Machias area. They visited Wild Blueberry Land, Axiom, the Grange, the French Cellar and Helen’s Restaurant.
At the evening forum, Betsy French of the French Cellar, a wine and cheese shop, said she found the process to open a business in Maine was uncomplicated. She said state agencies and officials that she dealt with along the way were cooperative and helpful.
“The process was not daunting and I’m doing very, very well,” French said.
Marie Emerson, owner of Wild Blueberry Land, said her business has a cult following and has become a landmark in Down East Maine, selling blueberries, baked goods and gifts. Emerson said that the state needs to provide greater support to the Department of Agriculture so that farmers can grow value-added businesses in Washington County.
“Our raw materials leave,” Emerson said. “We need to keep them here and add the jobs here.”
Elizabeth Sprague, small-business coordinator at the Down East Business Alliance, also said that funding for the Maine Department of Agriculture would help state meat inspectors take the training that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now requiring to allow Maine producers to sell their meat out of state.
Sprague said that Washington County also desperately needs access to high-speed Internet and reliable cell phone service.
“We also need some sort of solution for our distribution problem. How do we move supplies in and materials out?” Sprague said.
Ruth Leubecker of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging told LePage that because of budget cuts, 70,000 elderly people in the four counties that are served by EAAA went hungry last year.
“This problem will only increase next year,” Leubecker said. “We need to insure that people get fed. We need help here and we need it now.”
LePage said she learned a lot from the Washington County women.
“I got such a warm welcome up here,” she said.