Maine’s rural communities have borne the brunt of the decline of papermaking. When the dominant industry goes away — as has happened in six Maine paper mill towns over the last eight years — there is little there to replace it, leading to unemployment, plummeting property values, population declines and a loss of hope.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have asked the federal government to help rural Maine assess its strengths and opportunities as part of an effort to diversify local economies. This is important, if belated, work that should be happening with or without federal support — and should have begun in earnest long ago.
Earlier this month, the senators wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, asking her to assemble an Economic Development Assessment Team to help rural regions in Maine inventory their assets and identify challenges and opportunities to diversify their economies. The letter emphasizes the state’s forest products industry, which still plays an important role in Maine’s economy, but such diversification will have to go well beyond trees and paper to succeed.
To highlight the need for federal assistance, King will host the regional director of the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Agency on a tour of Millinocket on Wednesday.
With jobs plentiful in the local mills and surrounding woods, communities such as Millinocket, which essentially was built by the Great Northern Paper Co., fell under the spell of what researchers have dubbed the curse of natural resources. Under the curse, a sense of complacency reigns, workers see little incentive to upgrade their skills and education and non-natural resource-based industries are viewed as dangerous competition to the incumbent industry.
As Collins and King note in their letter, paper mill communities were once among Maine’s most prosperous. Now residents struggle to find jobs, property values have dropped and young people are moving away.
Among the senators’ requests to Pritzker, three are crucial: strengthening the workforce and workforce training efforts in rural Maine, developing strategies to support bottom-up economic development and sharing national best practices for economic development in rural regions affected by the decline of industry.
It is ironic that the senators are asking the federal government for help with this work as many residents and landowners in at least one of the affected regions are vocal about their disdain for the federal government. There is a project on the table that promises to aid in economic development and diversity — the proposal to create a national park in the Katahdin Region, a part of the state hit hard by the closure of paper mills. But so far, the senators, along with Rep. Bruce Poliquin, have been resistant to a national park or national monument. On Friday, King invited National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis to again visit the Katahdin region and meet with local residents to address their questions and concerns.
There is vocal local opposition, but the majority of Maine residents, including those in Maine’s more rural 2nd Congressional District, support a national park. Nationally, areas surrounding national parks saw larger population gains between 1970 and 2010 than the United States as a whole — and certainly much more than rural Maine. These areas also outpaced the U.S. in income growth and employment gains during that period.
This is the type of growth — especially an influx of new people — that the Katahdin region needs. Many want to live in scenic places with ample recreational opportunities. Some of these new residents will bring businesses and entrepreneurial skills with them.
A national park or monument is not a panacea, but it can be an important part of the region’s remaking. That’s why the assessment Collins and King are requesting must examine all possibilities for rural economic development — tourism included.