MILLINOCKET, Maine — An economic hurricane has devastated the state’s paper industry, but unlike what would happen if an actual weather disaster had struck, the federal response to the devastation has been paltry, U.S. Sen. Angus King said Tuesday.
“What’s happened in the paper industry is like a natural disaster. We have lost six mills in five years. We had some data that there are about 1,400 direct paper jobs lost, but there have been something like twice that many lost or compromised in associated industries,” King said.
That’s why King is leading a group of leaders from several federal economic development agencies on a two-day tour of the Lincoln Lakes and Katahdin regions. King’s goal is to help create a united, comprehensive federal effort to help the state’s forest products industries.
“If this had been a real hurricane, we would have had everybody up here, but the economic effect is very similar,” King said.
Commerce Department Regional Director Linda Cruz-Carnall is among the federal officials who toured PK Floats of Lincoln, the Scotts Co. of Medway and held a two-hour meeting with forest products industry leaders at Northern Penobscot Tech-Region III of Lincoln on Tuesday, King said.
The group’s stops on Wednesday include visits to Millinocket Fabrication and Machine, and DesignLab, both of Millinocket. Organizers said they hope that King’s group would attend a private monthly meeting with six volunteer economic development community groups at DesignLab after the ribbon-cutting, which is open to the public and will be held at 2:30 p.m.
They see the federal officials’ tour as a potential catalyst for a great deal of federal aid that can help the two areas recover from the closure of two paper mills since 2008 and an exodus that has nearly halved the Katahdin region’s population. Lincoln’s paper mill closed late last year.
“It is a positive thing that the senator is this engaged with the area,” said Mike Osborne, vice president of Our Katahdin, one of the six all-volunteer organizations working to promote community and economic development in the Katahdin region.
“We want to use this opportunity to help utilize the federal government, bring attention to our troubles and find any way the federal government can provide assistance to our efforts,” Osborne added Tuesday.
The tour arises from a letter that U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and King wrote on March 14 calling on the commerce department to lead a team from various federal agencies to study Maine’s forest product economy. The department did the same for the Gulf Coast region in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The letter asked that the team focus on declines in the state’s pulp and paper industry.
Tuesday’s meeting at Region III, which was private, drew 78 forest products industry leaders.
King said the meeting helped him create a list of 18 things he can do to help the industry.
The list included helping state wood-pellet manufacturers endure a steep downturn in product sales because of the cheap price of heating oil by providing them tax breaks and helping small businesses with tax breaks.
“It was a brainstorming session,” King said. “I think the longer-run prospects are good. It is a question of getting from here to there.”