MACHIAS, Maine — Through a series of community meetings across Washington County, supporters of the new Bold Coast Scenic Byway hope to get business owners, agencies and municipal officials involved in promoting the route and the economic progress it is expected to bring to Washington County.
“We looked at what we have: the Ice Age Trail, the Sunrise Trail, the Lighthouse to Lobster Trail,” Judy East, director of Washington County Council of Governments said Monday. “The scenic byway is literally and figuratively the thread that potentially pulls it all together. It is a coordinating theme to enhance tourism development. It is an economic engine.”
The Bold Coast Scenic Byway is Maine’s newest scenic byway that extends about 125 miles from Milbridge to Eastport. It passes through coastal fishing villages and offers picturesque views of Washington County’s rocky coastline, blueberry barrens and expansive tidal flats. The route highlights the unique scenic, cultural and historic attributes of coastal Washington County, according to East. “The byway has the power to take the great big white space on the map — Washington County — and unify the promotion of all aspects of the county.”
Washington County Council of Governments is using a $100,000 Maine Department of Transportation grant to create a byway corridor plan. Signs have been installed along the byway’s route, a core of 50 interested parties have been meeting to create an action plan to promote and enhance the byway, and three meetings were held over the past month at Milbridge, Lubec and Machias to engage local shareholders.
At the Machias meeting last week, representatives attended from the University of Maine at Machias, the Downeast Salmon Federation, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Axiom Technologies, Washington County government, and the Machias Revitalization Committee.
UMM’s involvement in the Bold Coast is imperative, President Cynthia Huggins said. “Our ability to retain and recruit depends on our ability to sell this area,” she said. Huggins said she intends to take the information gathered from the Washington County Council of Governments back to her campus “and get people energized. This offers opportunities for our students and staff.”
Jacob van der Sande of the Downeast Salmon Federation said the development of the trail means that “suddenly Washington County will go from a one-day trip to an international destination.”
Crystal Hitchings of the Washington County Council of Governments is spearheading the project. “We need every community that the trail passes through to get on board,” she said. Promotion of the byway will be critical and local improvements that will enhance a tourist’s experience — such as increased cellphone coverage and paving road shoulders for cyclists — will make a major difference.
Existing companies, such as Axiom, could partner with the byway project and create cellphone applications that would further augment the project, she said. The applications could provide information about lodging, restaurants, a calendar of events for the area and other key information. Kiosks will be installed at major locations.
Huggins pointed out that promotion shouldn’t be geared just at hikers and campers. “There is a clear connect here with the arts,” she said. “An art trail will draw a different type of person and tourists that often spend more money.”
Hitchings said local incentives could boost the byway through grants and loans for businesses to expand and grow to better serve the tourist industry. “As people come, we will need to help these businesses expand,” she said.
Accurate signage also will be key, van de Sande said. “Washington County has so many unknown gems,” he said. He suggested that an “adventure index” be part of promotional materials so tourists and travelers will know the difficulty of a hike or trail.
Hitchings said that tourists want hands-on adventures, such as lobster fishing trips, blueberry harvesting and agri-tourism, and that these type of activities will become more and more important to luring tourists.
Hitchings said that during the community meetings she was able to see how invested each byway community is. “In Milbridge, people are already pretty actively involved in the logistics end of things,” she said. “At Lubec, a lot of people were unaware of the byway and we had to provide a lot of background. Here, at Machias, it appears people want to get actively involved and build on technology aspects.”
Hitchings said the next step will be to take all the information gleaned at the three community meetings and fold it into an action plan, which will then be reviewed by all stakeholders at a large meeting. No date has been set for that gathering, she said. “Then we will start working on goals.”
Some of the goals include assessments of existing facilities, roads, recreational offerings, road safety and pedestrian analysis, promotion and the development of a sustainable byway organization.
“The byway covers 125 miles and there is a lot of stuff going on,” Hitchings said. “We are only at the beginning of this process.”