Mt. Katahdin is a picturesque scene with all of the fiery fall colors. Credit: Courtesy of Patty Jennings

PATTEN, Maine — Since the decline of paper mills surrounding the Mt. Katahdin area, the eight towns that straddle the region in Aroostook and Penobscot counties have been looking for new ways in which to revive their struggling economies.

A study recently completed by the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine shows just how much the area has been affected since the mill closures — and what the future of the towns’ economies might look like.

The study looked at data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau and Maine Department of Labor, as well as conducted surveys among residents of the Katahdin area towns of Millinocket, East Millinocket, Patten, Medway, Sherman, Island Falls, Stacyville and Mt. Chase.

“The focus was just to understand people’s perceptions about how communities were changing, and their inputs on what direction they wanted to see the region going,” said Adam Daigneault, an assistant professor of forest policy and economics at UMaine who led the study. “It was sort of a broad focus on where the region can go with no sort of preconceived notions of what the answer should be.”

Previously, many of the towns, such as Patten and Island Falls, had industrial mills producing things like lumber and starch that provided ample jobs in those communities. But many of those mills have closed down, bringing an economic downturn to the area.

The study found that the region experienced a major population decline from 2000 to 2017, dropping 12.2 percent during the period, compared to the 4.9 percent decline for Aroostook County and a 0.4 percent decrease for Penobscot in that same time period. Around 8 percent of the population was unemployed — compared to 4.6 for Aroostook and 3.3 for Penobscot — and only 11.4 percent of the population possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher.

As the data gathered was done prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the numbers may be even higher.

While the unemployment rate in the Katahdin area is nearly three times higher than in the state of Maine as a whole, the percentage of people living in poverty remained consistent with the state and national averages — something the study attributes to low housing values and the high number of older retirees who may be receiving benefits.

“That kind of stood out when we originally looked at it because you sort of would have this hypothesis that more people are living in poverty,” Daigneault said. “But you recognize that there are a lot of people living off a mix of pensions and other savings, and that it’s a much older community than even other parts around it.”

Leaders of the Katahdin areas have used the results of the socioeconomic data, as well as surveys conducted by UMaine, as part of the study, to help identify what towns can do to create new economic opportunities in the region.

One such opportunity being discussed is expanding on outdoor recreation, taking advantage of the area’s scenic nature and proximity to protected areas such as Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to help drive the economy.

“Part of that was trying to figure out what the vision should be for the area,” said Peggy Daigle, a member of the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen and a participant in the Katahdin Collaborative, which brings together businesses, nonprofits and municipalities to foster community and economic development.

“In the past years, the Katahdin region hasn’t actively embraced outdoor recreation or recreational opportunities,” she added, referring to activities such as hiking and offroading trails for ATVs and snowmobiles.

Early signs that towns are taking to this approach is the installation of a new pump track for mountain biking in Patten, as well as Island Falls making improvements along the section of the Mattawamkeag River that flows through the town, such as including a riverfront walkway.

Daigle said that in addition to helping with economic development, improvements to recreation also will improve quality of life in the region.

“It’s about creating a better downtown area, creating other opportunities and creating a better sense of place,” Daigle said. “It’s about being holistic in our thinking as opposed to being singular.”