MILLINOCKET, Maine — Millinocket needs a farmers market? OK, Cassandra Fournier will oversee it as a volunteer. The town also needs a clothing store? Fine, Fournier said, she will take that on, too, as a side business.
“I wanted a farmers market, and the only way it happens is if I run it — plain and simple,” Fournier said recently.
The 24-year-old town resident and registered medical assistant at Millinocket Regional Hospital sounds confident and committed to her community when she talks about her plans to get both initiatives going this summer.
She is among a small group of present and former Millinocket residents whose efforts have drawn attention since a Virginia economic development firm’s somewhat bracing letter in January told residents they needed to do more for their community to resurrect its moribund economy.
“Pretty much my whole opinion was, what do we [Millinocket residents] need? OK, I will do it,” Fournier said. “I hit a point I thought where we [Fournier and her fiance, Josh Wallace] should either face the town’s problems or move away.”
Town Council members praised Fournier’s plan when they voted 7-0 on May 14 to grant her permission to use Crandall Park off Congress Avenue and Millinocket Stream for the farmers market.
CZB Associates of Alexandria, Virginia, volunteered its services as an economic analyst and planner last September after an article in the New York Times described the region’s economic difficulties in light of the closing of a century-old paper mill. A few months later, the firm’s owner wrote Millinocket residents had not invested in their town “in any meaningful way” in more than five decades. He also said the town needed more regular folks to improve the town’s appearance.
Some residents said the CZB letter was on target and underlined the importance of volunteer activities. While several volunteer efforts were underway before, the letter served to boost support and motivate others into action. The volunteer activities include Fournier’s proposed market, a volunteer basketball tournament that helped fund the Katahdin region’s two high school sports programs, the creation of 5 miles of cross-country skiing trails, a proposed community garden, the creation of downtown banners and the pending revitalizations of Millinocket Stream and Hillcrest Park.
The proposed clothing store, Fournier said, comes in response to requests from residents. Several town stores feature clothing, but the Katahdin region lacks a freestanding clothing store, and the Lincoln Lakes region only has one. She hopes to finish renovations within a few months.
The start date for the farmers market is June 6, Fournier said. She hopes to run it weekly over the first summer before handing its operation over to other volunteers. Eight vendors have committed to it, including distributors of produce, herbs, candles, homemade soaps, eggs and berries. Vendors will pay a $50 membership fee, plus an insurance liability fee. Anyone interested in vending at the market should call Fournier at 447-5994.
A website created by former resident Sean DeWitt catalogs and collects donations for many of the volunteer efforts. It lists the purchasing of an outdoor mobile movie theater for the Katahdin region, the long-established East Millinocket SummerFest and Millinocket Fourth of July fireworks show and free bus service to the state high school basketball tournament.
Volunteers who propose to build a Santa hut downtown and who annually plant flowers along Millinocket Stream have sought to join the Our Katahdin fundraising list, DeWitt said.
Other volunteers are working to add solar-powered lights to areas of downtown and Hillcrest Park, said Amy Collinsworth, a 28-year-old Millinocket resident and volunteer organizer of the tournament and the Hillcrest Park revitalization.
“My personal opinion is that the mill stacks coming down gave a sense of closure, as difficult as it was to watch. We had to move on and think about the next chapter. It wasn’t going to be the mill again [to revitalize the town],” said DeWitt, a Washington, D.C., resident and Millinocket native who still has family in town.
The CZB analysis just underscored the need for more volunteer efforts in the area and helped motivate a flood of contributions to the activities highlighted on his website which actually launched last December, DeWitt said. The site had raised about $13,500 for various projects as of this week.
“The CZB study certainly accelerated the pace of the fundraising — crazy how fast,” DeWitt said.
Josh Stevens, who is helping build a community garden on Medway Road, said the impact of CZB’s letter is overrated, at least on volunteers. The garden project, Stevens said, aims to promote environmental sustainability and help feed and provide positive outlets for East Millinocket, Medway, Millinocket and Woodville residents while promoting camaraderie among the towns.
The letter, he said, just told many volunteers what they’ve known for years.
Collinsworth created a Facebook page, “There Ain’t No ‘Mill’ In Ocket,” to help organize volunteer efforts at about the time the letter arrived. She said the letter’s blunt language carried emotional power for residents who might not have considered the importance of volunteerism.
But it also made a basic point with which Collinsworth agrees. Communities that don’t invest in themselves aren’t likely to be attractive enough to draw outside investors, and in many areas, such as Hillcrest, Millinocket simply wasn’t that attractive anymore, she said. It’s a message, town leaders have said, that many Maine communities could heed.
The success of the Facebook page — it has nearly 725 members — dispels the criticism of some residents who felt that volunteer beautification was misguided, Collinsworth said.
“They called us silly girls who think Facebook can solve all our problems. Well, you know what? We are right,” Collinsworth said. “They said we should be focusing on creating jobs right now. Well, if nobody is coming here, there are reasons. One of them is that parts of this place look like we don’t care.”
The work “has definitely changed the attitude of people now. I just feel a shift,” she added. “People are seeing things happen, and they are excited about it.”