An economic development study proposed by Millinocket leaders could be just the right tool to break a logjam over the possibility of a national park in the region. Rather than examining the pros and cons of such a park — which remains highly controversial — an economic development assessment could take a broader look at the assets and liabilities of the area. This would be helpful well beyond the park discussion.
Millinocket leaders proposed the new study last week after Roxanne Quimby — who has proposed to donate 70,000 acres she owns in the area for a national park — offered a harsh assessment of Maine and its residents in an interview with forbes.com. She has since apologized for her comments, including that Maine was a welfare state and its residents are obese.
The study envisioned by town officials would be done by an entity such as the federal Economic Development Administration, and it would be of all economic sectors in East Millinocket, Medway, Millinocket, Mount Chase, Patten, Sherman, Stacyville and Penobscot County’s portion of the Unorganized Territory.
The regional nature of such an assessment is a benefit as would be the thorough look at the region’s current economic activity and future opportunities. That’s why the surrounding communities should welcome such a review.
Ms. Quimby has been pushing for a feasibility study by the National Park Service to assess whether the land she would like to donate to the service is suitable for such a designation. She and her supporters say that a national park would bring needed revenue to the region, which has been hard hit by declining employment in the forest products industries.
Some communities in the region have supported a feasibility study while others have opposed it. Most members of the state’s congressional delegation oppose it.
Rather than a narrow study of a potential national park, a broader look at the changing future of the region makes more sense. Such a review should identify likely areas of economic growth and the impediments to such growth.
The early work has already been done. The Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine surveyed residents and business owners in Piscataquis County, the heart of the region eyed for a park, about their views of outdoor and cultural tourism.
Three quarters of respondents said they would like their town to become a primary tourist attraction. At the same time, nearly two-thirds said tourism provides only low-income, seasonal work and nearly half said tourism doesn’t provide the kind of jobs the region needs.
When asked what to do to increase tourism, residents and especially business owners, supported increases in nonmotorized activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing and kayaking over snowmobiling and motor boating.
A fuller look at the region should move beyond the national park divide and provide objective information about what the area can — and cannot — expect to do to improve its economy.