MILLINOCKET, Maine — Gary Allen is a marathon runner from Cranberry Isles who has organized running events in Maine for more than 30 years. When the 59-year-old heard of the economic struggles of the Katahdin region, he knew a marathon could help.
Allen’s idea: To not charge runners an entry fee, suggesting instead that they and other attendees splurge at area shops, restaurants and hotels and see how much the region has to offer.
This year’s marathon looks to be much more in line with what Allen wanted. The Saturday event had 953 pre-registered runners as of Wednesday, he said.
“I have no idea how many runners will show up, but it’s still a significant number,” Allen said.
More than 40 Katahdin region businesses are getting behind the event by offering in-store discounts and raffling off prizes this weekend. To get people to visit as many stores as possible, shoppers are being encouraged to register free raffle tickets at every business they visit.
“My hope is that people will come here, enjoy the marathon and shop, and make plans to return,” said Anita Mueller, co-owner of Moose Prints Gallery and Gifts of Millinocket. Mueller developed and administers for the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce a free cellphone app, Discover Katahdin, that carries pages dedicated to the event.
Activating the communities
The weather forecast, Allen said, seems promising — clear and cold — and the economic impact that he seeks seems on the way. Katahdin Inn & Suites manager Sunny Kansara, who had only four guests on Tuesday, said almost all of the inn’s 76 rooms are booked for Friday and Saturday.
“Once they announced the dates for the marathon, people started calling,” said Kansara, who manages the largest hotel in Millinocket.
“What I am seeing is that this has literally activated the community. There are so many different dances, dinners and things going on that weekend. I am getting a lot of feedback from local folks who are literally energized by this,” Allen said. “Hopefully it will help the people who live in the region see themselves in a different light.”
December is usually a dead month, Kansara said.
“There are only two seasons here — once we get enough snow [for snowmobiling] and when [Baxter State Park] hikers start coming,” Kansara said. “Last year we had a good amount of people in December because some people were wrecking the mill. We had a nice month.”
Since 2008, the Katahdin region has been devastated by the closure of paper mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket, which in turn contributed to vast unemployment, unprecedented numbers of foreclosures and a population exodus. Both mills have been gutted. Unemployment typically runs at double the state average, property values are at an all-time low and property taxes are very high in the region.
The leadership of the lower Katahdin region towns, East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket, has largely ignored economic development efforts until recently, but several volunteer economic development groups have formed over the last three years.
The economics of recreation
No one expects that Allen’s marathon will revitalize the Katahdin region, but marathons can help. According to the National Runner Survey, the sport has grown from 25,000 finishers in 1976 to 518,000 finishers in 2012. A 2013 report at Connect Sports said marathons can have a $200 million impact in big cities such as Boston, New York and Las Vegas.
Measures of more local marathon impacts weren’t available on Wednesday, but Allen said he wouldn’t mind his race doing for Millinocket what a bicycling event, the Maine Lobster Ride, does for Camden.
Based on self-reporting spending surveys of 123 of 910 participants in 2015 and 154 of 913 participants this year, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine estimated that the 15- to 103-mile single-day event drew to the Camden area $450,000 last year and $702,097 this year.
“That’s our best guess at what we’ve been able to capture,” said Zach Schmesser, an event director for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
Among the many differences between Camden and Millinocket, Camden is a seaside town with likely many more recreational outlets than the Katahdin region — and it is very crowded in summer.
“The people in the communities look forward to having us back,” Schmesser said. “We get approached by various communities that want us to help them start an event. I think for us, one of the things that’s really interesting about looking at the midcoast in the summer is that it’s very busy, and we are contributing to that.”
About 87 percent of event participants surveyed reported that they came to the midcoast region for the event, and 52 percent said they spent at least one night away from home, according to the survey.
State municipalities are encouraged to run events such as Allen’s, said Vicki Rusbult, who is director of the Re-Engineering The Region program at Eastern Maine Development Corp., an effort to help northern Maine rebound from paper industry losses.
“Events of this nature energize the community. There is energy and activity. Folks are coming from away and are spending money in the community and surrounding communities,” said Rusbult, who holds a doctoral degree in educational leadership. “They are bringing a renewed sense of community with it, too.
“These events are huge in terms of people in that it’s really about a community getting its mojo back. That’s the way I like to describe it,” Rusbult added.
A Boston Marathon qualifier
The Katahdin region is getting behind the marathon. Volunteer groups are among those hosting 19 events in conjunction with the marathon, according to the event schedule. The activities will include arts fairs, dinners, church services and two dances. Hot beverages and warming stations also will be available for racers and spectators.
“The community is doing a lot more than what I wanted them to do,” Allen said of Millinocket. “I had thought that they would just sit back and enjoy the race, but it seems like that’s not Millinocket’s style. They wanted to be actively involved and put on a good show.”
The expected cold and the rugged nature of the event, and the fact that race registration is free, is likely drawing many participants, said Jessica Masse, whose Millinocket-based Designlab marketing firm is helping publicize the event.
“People all over the country do these tough-man contests and all these events where they test themselves. This fits into that,” Masse said. “Who can go to northern Maine and run on these logging roads?”
With a course certified to meet USA Track & Field standards, the race also is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. It’s possibly the only free qualifier for the Boston race, Allen said. It will run regardless of weather conditions, and the course features, weather permitting, spectacular views of Mount Katahdin from the Golden Road, the longest private logging road in North America.
Allen is one of three dozen runners worldwide to run a sub-three-hour marathon in five different decades, but the Great Cranberry Island resident is probably best-known in Maine as the organizer of the Mount Desert Island Marathon. He also has run long-distance fundraiser treks to Washington, D.C., and to the Super Bowl.
Mueller hopes that the marathon will continue and that other new events will occur in the region. The small-burst infusions of capital generated by these events can over time contribute greatly to the regional economy’s stability, she said.
“Economic development in itself should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint,” Mueller said. “You have to be in it for the long haul and it takes many small steps to realize a good result.”