Brent Churchill remembers when he was growing up in Fort Fairfield and drivers could not find a place to park on Main Street any Friday or Saturday night. The town was bustling with activity, drawing people from surrounding towns on both sides of the Canadian border.
“Fort Fairfield was the hub of Aroostook County,” he said in a recent interview. “People came from Limestone, Caribou, Perth-Andover and even Grand Falls.”
A bustling, busy Main Street is part of Churchill’s vision for Fort Fairfield’s future, and he is not alone.
Facing the challenge of revitalizing a community with dwindling resources, the town’s leaders decided to invite every resident to participate in finding solutions. As Fort Fairfield celebrated its sesquicentennial in December 2009 at a community-wide potluck, town officials issued a challenge “to envision what Fort Fairfield could be if all work together in community.”
With 10 percent of the population in attendance, more than half signed up to help. And at a follow-up meeting in January, those who responded to the call for action generated a list of 300-plus assets of Fort Fairfield and more than 100 ideas for ways to progress.
“Innovation in local government had begun: All had experienced a collaborative venture in building a vibrant future for Fort Fairfield,” says a report on the process published in the town’s economic development plan.
By Feb. 25, 2010, themes from the brainstorm session had been crafted into a vision statement for a meeting of more than 100 residents who formed 10 committees, each focused on an aspect of life in Fort Fairfield. These “Vision Fort Fairfield” groups agreed to meet and submit goals and recommendations to the town manager by April 30. The result was “a people-driven economic development investment strategy” reflecting the willingness of citizens to work together toward a common goal of creating a sustainable community.
“It’s us helping ourselves,” Town Manager Dan Foster said recently, stressing the value of citizens rather than town officials presenting recommendations to the town council. “It’s citizen-to-citizen.”
“Economic development is about more than jobs and infrastructure,” Foster said. “It’s about creating a place of quality where people want to be.”
A representative from each of the 10 vision committees was designated to serve a term on the ongoing Quality of Place Council, to oversee the implementation of the economic development investment strategy.
“Our focus is on Fort Fairfield as a friendly place, a place that creates memories,” said Churchill, who chairs the council. “I have never seen a community like this where everyone is trying to help each other. The citizens of this community are top of the line.” Churchill and his wife moved back to his hometown after living in Cape Elizabeth.
It was this can-do attitude that inspired Michael Bosse to accept the position of marketing and economic development director for Fort Fairfield.
“Nobody says ‘if’ — it’s ‘when’ and ‘how,'” he said of citizen comments on their future. “There is a fondness for the community and willingness to do whatever it takes to help it prosper. The saying is ‘Friendly Fort Fairfield’ and they truly are. They want to be successful in recruiting businesses and families.”
They also want to keep residents in Fort Fairfield as they age. This commitment became tangible in a pair of groundbreaking ceremonies in August and October. Construction of a 25-unit senior citizen housing complex began in August on Presque Isle Street behind the Family Dollar store.
On Oct. 5, the town and Pine Health Services broke ground for the 3,700-square-foot Kimball Community Health Center off Presque Isle Street on Harmony Lane. Named for Dr. Herrick Kimball, in recognition of his leadership in developing a community hospital in Fort Fairfield in the 1940s, the center will be owned by the town and operated by Pines.
“It was exciting to see the dirt moving and the wood coming into town,” said Kim Jones, a lifelong Fort Fairfield resident who chaired the vision committee dedicated to health care. Now a member of the Quality of Place Council, Jones, is impressed with the vision of her fellow members. “They are looking out for generations to come, thinking way beyond the present,” she said.
Sarah Ulman, who came to the Quality of Place Council from the vision committee on heritage and cultural resources, said the revitalizing effort is strengthened by the diversity of those involved — people of all ages and stages in their careers. She also praised the rapport with the town office, the school, and the public works department, which “goes above and beyond to make the town a better place.”
Philip Christensen chairs a six-member committee focused on recreating the Main Street Brent Churchill remembers from his childhood. They plan to survey Canadian patrons of the local grocery store and gas station to see what Fort Fairfield could offer to keep them in town longer.
“There’s a spark. We’ve just not been able to light the fire,” said Christensen, who moved back to his family farm 12 years ago after a career with USDA in Maryland and Washington, D.C. “I enjoy trying to help make things happen. A lot of people really like Fort Fairfield.”
Jones is convinced the town is “on the cusp” of identifying what Fort Fairfield has that no other place can offer. “We’re a quiet, sleeper town on the verge of busting out into the future.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.