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Rural Maine towns that take charge have a better shot at success

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Downtown Greenville, Nov. 15, 2016

The towns and unorganized townships around Moosehead Lake, like much of rural Maine, have seen jobs in the woods and in forest products manufacturing dwindle. They’ve seen their populations shrink and grow older and poorer. And they’ve seen their schools empty out.

In the Moosehead Lake area, residents are doing something about it.

With the help of business and philanthropic support, and with the participation of local governments in the area, the Moosehead Lake region is proactively laying the groundwork for its future — a future based on developing the region into a top tourist destination for travelers seeking a wilderness vacation.

As communities throughout rural Maine grapple with decline, they face a choice about their future. It will look different in each place based on each community’s history and current economic mix and what each community has to offer the rest of the world. Not every area has Moosehead Lake and hundreds of thousands of acres of permanently conserved forest surrounding it to draw people in, but the Moosehead Lake region offers some universal lessons about charting a path forward.

Act as a region. The work to develop the Moosehead Lake region and market it as “America’s Crown Jewel,” as reported in a recent BDN Maine Focus project, doesn’t involve only one municipality or one county. While regional cooperation is rare throughout the country because of a heavy dependence on local property taxes, the problems that need to be solved are mostly regional in nature.

In the Moosehead Lake area, the community planning and branding work underway covers towns and unorganized townships in Piscataquis and Somerset counties. There’s a broad recognition, for example, that even if population growth happens in the Unorganized Territory outside Greenville, Greenville itself stands to benefit as the service center for the entire region.

“Population growth outside but near Greenville, such as population growth in Beaver Cove and Hartfords Point, contributes economically, socially and culturally to the Greenville community,” the town of Greenville’s 2013 comprehensive plan reads.

Settle on a vision. In the Greenville area, the goal is to develop the region into a premier, nature-based tourism destination. This vision didn’t materialize immediately. It took years, and it took a handful of outside developments in the region — Plum Creek Timber Co.’s concept plan that ultimately determined where development could and could not happen around the lake and large swaths of land entering into permanent conservation — to solidify it. That the community has a shared vision means there’s a focus, and there are concrete goals that have to do with building the region into an area that’s enticing to tourists — and not investing heavily in the much less feasible proposition of attracting a large employer to the area from the outside.

There have to be local champions. At its core, the main reason the Moosehead Lake region is working proactively to plan for its future is because community members care about the place they call home. They want to see it succeed, and they’re willing to work for it — even without a guarantee of success.

There’s no formula for reviving small, rural towns that came into being because of the woods and need to decide on a different reason for being to survive into the future. Every town has a unique history and a unique mix of advantages on which it can build.

There’s no blueprint for them to follow, but the towns that can agree on what they want to be, that can work in concert with their neighbors, and that can let their local champions take charge have a better shot at success than those that let decline happen to them and hope for improbable help from the outside.

 



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