MILLINOCKET, Maine — Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler promised Thursday to personally lead an effort to revitalize the northern Maine economy as governor that could include a Katahdin-region national park. He also expressed doubts about the New Hampshire backer of a plan to build a specialized pellet mill in town.
“I think we need to stop looking in the rear-view mirror for Maine’s future. The future will be most successfully built around wood fiber and its products and around tourism and recreation,” Cutler said after an informal afternoon meeting with the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce. “The real issue is not are we for or against the national park. The real issue is what is the best way to capitalize on this area’s tourism and recreation.”
“I believe a national park and national recreation area could easily be among the components of a plan to develop the recreational and tourism potential of this area,” Cutler added, “and I would lead a process that would create that plan. But it is really important to me and the people of this region that the plan be one that they are closely involved in and support.”
A governor “or elected chief executive needs to lead this plan because this area is so important to the public interests of this state,” he said.
Representatives of incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage did not respond to a request for comment. David Farmer, spokesman for Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said that Maine’s labor history, what Cutler referred to as “the rear-view mirror for Maine’s future,” is a big part of its future.
“Creating a successful future for Maine — and, more importantly, all of the hardworking people who live here — requires building an economy that capitalizes on Maine’s strengths and a vision for Maine’s future. But that doesn’t mean we can turn our backs on the working men and women who have made this state what it is today. We have to distinguish between the ideas that look good on paper and initiatives that truly help Mainers,” Farmer said in a statement released Thursday night.
Michaud and LePage have opposed a national park initiative as proposed by Roxanne Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair. St. Clair “is doing a good job at involving people in the discussion,” Cutler said.
Cutler also expressed doubts about the state continuing to invest in Cate Street Capital, a New Hampshire-based investment firm that is bankrolling Thermogen Industries’ effort to build a $140 million specialized pellet mill in Millinocket and Great Northern Paper Co.’s work to restart a paper mill in East Millinocket.
Cate Street, Cutler said, “has yet to demonstrate to me that it has the capability, the financial capacity and the skills to successfully rebuild or build $200 million in businesses.
“They have represented themselves to be the vessel of people’s dreams in this region, yet all we learn about them day after day, week after week, is that there is a string of broken promises and failed deals, none of which recommends them,” he added. “Whether they ought to be the repository of an investment by the people of Maine of millions of dollars is, I think, a very open question.”
Cate Street spokeswoman Alexandra Ritchie said the company is disappointed in Cutler’s remarks. The company, she said, has employed 257 workers for 2½ years at East Millinocket, investing millions in that effort. Her company has “a proven track record” as an industrial developer since 2009, most recently with a biomass electricity boiler in New Hampshire.
“This facility … is the same sort of revitalization effort we have been developing in Millinocket,” Ritchie said in a statement. “While it’s easy to comment on what has not necessarily gone to plan, the efforts, resources and financial investment facilitated by Cate Street [in the paper mill], and now allocated to the ongoing restart and restructuring efforts, demonstrates the capability that Cate Street and its team brings to the state.”
“They remain efforts that we are strongly committed to and we have full confidence we can complete,” she added.
Dan Rafter, a spokesman for Michaud, said that Cate Street must “take the necessary steps that will ultimately allow the mill in East Millinocket to restart operations — they have a responsibility to the hundreds of people whose jobs and livelihoods are on the line.”
“There is no question that we must get workers back into the mill as soon as possible, and we’ll continue to support all of the efforts aimed at that outcome,” he added.
The Finance Authority of Maine approved last week a $16 million bond for Cate Street that represented a $9 million cut to the loan its board of directors voted to award in October. Board members liked the new technology that prompted the second review but said that Thermogen had $16 million in collateral.
The board was concerned about Great Northern Paper’s debts. The company owes at least $6.8 million to lienholders, including East Millinocket, Millinocket and the Internal Revenue Service.
“I have some abiding doubts with them,” Cuter said of Cate Street. “I am not ready to reach a conclusion, but I have abiding doubts.”
Cutler toured downtown Millinocket and met with several business owners and residents before meeting with chamber members at The Appalachian Trail Cafe. It was no fiery campaign stop. Cutler spoke often of his political philosophy, the state’s economic history, and said little that was critical of his gubernatorial race opponents.
His audience — several business owners — was very congenial. They swapped stories of experiences that illustrated the themes of Cutler’s campaign. Cutler praised Maine’s natural resources as rich, blamed the rocky recent history of the state’s forest products industry on a legislative decision that decoupled the Katahdin region’s hydroelectric dams from its paper mills in 2002, and said that Maine’s future success will depend largely on its leaders developing far better long-term strategic planning skills.
“This has a lot to do with how we try to attract big huge companies to Maine instead of smaller companies,” Cutler said, noting that strategy has not worked. “It is what we used to do and how we used to make money in Maine. We became dependent on that idea and the fact is instead of trying to recruit companies with [outlandish] demands, we should try to recruit” companies whose offerings match the skill sets of Maine workers.
“There are in Maine a lot of skilled workers — trained, skilled workers. So you want to find those businesses that need skilled workforces, that need access to natural resources, particularly wood fiber, and where an employer can see a future workforce that can replace a workforce that has an average age of 56. You also need someone available to train” workers with new skills, Cutler said. He offered no specific examples of such businesses.
Cutler emphasized his status as an independent candidate.
“I am not a spoiler. I am a choice,” he said. “I have not found an ‘Anybody But Cutler’ vote anywhere in Maine,” he said, noting that he is polling higher now than he was at this time in his earlier, unsuccessful run for governor. “The numbers are moving in our direction. Not the other guys.’”
An earlier version of this story requires correction. A passage about the importance of the snowmobiling industry to Maine should have been attributed to Larry MacArthur, not Rick Levasseur.