In its day, Great Northern Paper was the world for the Katahdin region, and our lives revolved around it.
Life was good. The towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket proudly carried the identity of “mill town,” and residents were pleased to be papermakers. People prospered.
But those days are just wonderful memories. We must reinvent the towns if we want them once again to thrive.
The first step toward rebuilding is to set aside differences of the past and begin anew with the spirit of cooperation. The days of one draw are gone, and diversity is the answer.
Our towns are dying, while we bitterly argue over things we should be working together on, for the good of all. Together, we can diversify the local economy and the workforce.
Understandably, those waiting to return to work at the mill are hoping to see Cate Street Capital receive the $16 million bond from the Finance Authority of Maine, to build a $140 million wood pellet plant in Millinocket. But, for a minute, think about what could happen if that $16 million was instead used to help rebuild the towns of the Katahdin region. Think of the businesses and jobs it could provide.
Imagine creating, for example, 20 smaller businesses that employ 20 or more people each instead of propping up one questionable company — that’s projected to create 55 jobs directly and 281 indirectly — for a few weeks or months before it shuts down again.
Instead of FAME providing millions to a business that has yet to show it can provide long-term jobs and pay its bills, perhaps FAME should consider investing in the Katahdin area. If it offered the financial opportunity to people with the will, ambition and know-how to run an enterprise. It could help launch many more businesses and create more jobs.
There are so many businesses that could benefit these towns and make life better for everyone living here — and those people the businesses would attract. Having multiple strong businesses would not only protect jobs and draw more people here to live or visit, it would serve as a stabilizing base to our economy.
The communities in this region have strengths and weaknesses, but each share some common characteristics. We have our logging and papermaking history, our culture and traditions, and our town events. These are parts of our identity that we should not only retain but share and draw on. We also have our own distinct physical assets, such as historic buildings and natural surroundings. With cooperation all around, we have a lot to work with.
Together, we can find incentives to bring in new businesses and keep the businesses we have. We can begin to rebuild and grow. We have a wealth of assets and ideas that could benefit all if we shared them and worked together for a common goal.
We need to reach out to different groups, residents and business owners and bring everyone together for the Katahdin area and the towns we love.
Reinventing doesn’t mean we need to completely change our towns; we just need to work together, come up with a long-term plan that is sustainable and stick to it. It won’t happen overnight, but the sooner we begin, the sooner it will happen.
Wasting time bickering with each other only aids the exodus of people. We cannot draw new residents unless we first stop the departure of our own residents.
A national park will not save the area. Rather, the restrictions and red tape that come with federal control would inhibit growth. Survival requires economic development, but a national park will limit our options. We need to have both tourism and industry.
Otherwise, we know what will happen: a continued drain of residents and worsening of economic conditions. It’s time to think creatively and work together.
Kathy Gagnon lives in Medway. She was born and raised in Millinocket.