MILLINOCKET, Maine — Amy Collinsworth is a Millinocket resident and lifelong fan of the town known as the Magic City for the speed with which it was built in the Maine woods more than a century ago.
A Stearns High School graduate, former basketball team captain and organizer of a recent alumni basketball game that raised about $1,500 for her high school’s sports programs, the 25-year-old says she is the last person who would badmouth her hometown.
So it might be surprising that Collinsworth found a Virginia economic development firm’s recent open letter to the town — in which residents and town leaders were taken to task for having a negative attitude, ducking tough choices and being rude to outsiders — to be right on the money.
“I think it’s exactly what they needed to hear. I think the Town Council means well, but there are people out of state willing to help us,” Collinsworth said Wednesday. “It is going to take someone to push them [town leaders] in the right direction.”
“It is just a matter of getting people to look at the bigger picture. The mill is gone,” Collinsworth added. “Now it is time to put that in the past and say, now what can we do?”
Downtown art gallery owner Marsha Donahue agreed that the nine-page report by CZB Associates of Alexandria is “spot-on accurate.”
“I have serious doubts as to whether Millinocket is able to make the changes the report recommends, but hope springs eternal,” Donahue added. “I liked the way it was organized to provide a way out should they choose to take it. It is an extremely difficult path out but it does point the way even though they are difficult steps to take.”
As written by CZB President Charles Buki with blunt and occasionally upbraiding language, the report recommended that Millinocket increase taxes, beautify itself, consolidate schools, aggressively seek grants and create a regional economic development strategy based on open public land and tourism. Until recent years, the town’s economy was based on the now dismantled paper mill.
Working for free in order to help the town, Buki and CZB staff members visited Millinocket for two days last fall, met with councilors, residents and local business leaders, received 500 responses to “an extensive” survey, and compiled and reviewed statistical data on town economic and population trends before writing the report.
“The outside world will not invest in Millinocket until you in Millinocket — residents and business owners — give them a reason to. Historically, cheap land and disregard for consequences was sufficient. Enough for mining interests in Montana and copper, for logging [in Maine]. Those days are gone forever. Investment today, and for every foreseeable tomorrow ahead, is and will be of a different sort,” he wrote.
“It will be the investments in places that signal that those already there really care, and care visibly,” he added.
Town Councilors Bryant Davis and Anita Mueller agreed Wednesday that the report had some merits. Although Davis said he personally found it “a little harsh,” and that it had “nothing I did not already know,” he said that residents might find the letter to be an eye-opener.
“Even though I know it,” Davis said in an email, “I feel most of the townspeople haven’t realized the harsh [reality] of what our community is facing.”
Mueller said that as a local businessperson — she co-owns an art gallery — the report represents “a watershed moment for the business community.”
“It is a gift that should not be squandered. While often difficult to hear, the truth is seldom our enemy. I look forward to the next steps,” she said Wednesday.
Buki said Wednesday that he hoped residents caught the fundamentally positive thrust of his letter and took its bluntness as a call to action. He was impressed, he said, with several businesses — including Maine Heritage Timber, Angelo’s Pizza, New England Outdoor Center, and Millinocket Fabrication and Machine – and found many people who agreed that the community needed to make fundamental changes.
“The pieces are all there,” Buki said.
He criticized the town for its run-down appearance, air of entitlement and apparent lack of self-investment, Buki said.
“Social investment precedes financial investment. Social disinvestment precedes financial disinvestment, and that rule of thumb is ironclad,” he said.
Investment isn’t merely a matter of money, he said, but of volunteerism and people directing personal resources in ways that benefit those around them, not just themselves.
“Volunteerism matters hugely but it’s really important to differentiate between senior citizens on fixed incomes and somebody who has two snowmobiles and a bad-looking house and them telling me that they can’t take care of their house because it costs to much money,” Buki said. “I call bull—— on that. You save money by not buying one snowmobile and invest the $1,500 back in your home. Now the rest of the world doesn’t think that you have such low standards.”
“It is tough medicine. I am not making light of it,” he added. “I also wrote it [the letter] to the state. I wanted the state to understand that the state [government] is sitting on its [rear end]. Once you get 25 minutes off the coast you have 30 Millinockets and the state needs those towns to bring their A-game. And the state is content to let Millinocket fall on its face over and over again rather than say, what can we do to improve them?”
Buki’s company would be happy, he said, to continue its pro bono work for the town. It would begin a community visioning process that would break down social cliques and competitiveness to get residents to work together to chart a common path, he said.
Collinsworth agreed that many residents “don’t embrace new changes. And the town does have a lot of people who want to buy the big trucks and toys but you drive by a lot of houses and they have broken-down cars and plywood covering up windows.”
But she has a plan to combat this. Heeding some of the points made in CZB’s report, Collinsworth said she is assembling friends who are forming committees to tackle specific problems within town as volunteers.
“I would rather we be known as the town that didn’t give up. I’d rather that we said we saw our problems, said we need a solution and here is what can we do to fix it rather than just say the town is dying, there’s no money and there’s nothing we can do,” Collinsworth said. “There are definitely people who have ideas. I just don’t know that they are being heard. They feel they are just being shut down.”
“There are a lot of angels out there looking to help, people who have moved away from here,” she added. “It is almost like everybody is waiting for somebody else to move.”