On March 12, Maine learned the good news that Washington County’s largest employer, Woodland Pulp, is expected to add 80 direct jobs as the result of a $120-million investment to install two tissue machines.
Mainers should celebrate the announcement of the new machines, which are anticipated to begin operating in 2015 and 2016. It’s the largest recent investment on record at the mill in Baileyville, which employs 320 people; there was a $50 million improvement in the late 1990s and an $80 million one in 1989.
But as officials at the mill, in local governments and at the state level know, the decision by mill owner International Grand Investment Corp. to devote its resources to this mill didn’t happen by accident. It was a fight. The corporation, which is registered in Delaware and part of a Chinese-holding company, could have spent its money elsewhere.
To compete for the investment, Baileyville underwent an audit to show its financial situation is sound. It worked to reduce the tax rate, and it committed to beautifying the downtown and maintaining an important list of municipal services such as fire and police protection, a recreation department, library and public works department.
To be a desirable place to live and work — and invest — eastern Washington County needs to offer the amenities and opportunities that support quality living. This is where its work must continue. As municipal leaders in Baileyville and nearby Calais are aware, the strongest economies do not rely on single industries. They are diverse. Having various businesses limits risk to municipalities and taxpayers when some don’t perform well.
As the mill and town officials have made clear, the local economy needs to diversify. The latest investment by International Grand Investment Corp. doesn’t need to be — and shouldn’t be — its last. Why not use the news as motivation to pursue the next economic development steps?
We hope everyone can agree that Baileyville and the surrounding area would benefit from growing jobs in industries in addition to pulp and paper — and that doing so will actually help the mill’s long-term prospects. Companies want to invest in strong communities.
The area already has positive features that could be built upon — an airport in Princeton, an international border crossing and regional service center in Calais, a deepwater port in Eastport, Washington County Community College in Calais, the wilderness of Grand Lake Stream and Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, and compressed natural gas in Baileyville.
Calais and Baileyville councilors have met to discuss pursuing development projects jointly — an excellent idea. Other municipalities and businesses need to get on board and figure out how they can best contribute to the growth of the area. One person, one town, one business can’t improve the region on their own. What helps Baileyville, helps Calais and Eastport, and vice versa.
Maine’s rural areas have struggled for decades to soften population declines and offer a middle-class standard of living. Broad government strategies have not prompted desired results, pointing to the need for a new way of thinking about the challenging task of creating jobs in rural Maine. One promising idea is for local or regional leaders to capitalize on the assets rural areas already possess. We know of one strong asset in Baileyville.
Just as Baileyville fought for the investment in its mill, the area needs to apply the same level of determination in its battle for more economic opportunities.