The view down Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

By Katie Smith

From mill closures to the pandemic, economic stressors have forced the Katahdin region to get creative in its efforts to rebuild and redefine itself, coming up with new ways to keep and attract people and businesses to the area.

However, it’s a slow burn that doesn’t happen overnight.

“Industrial redevelopment takes time, but we are encouraged by the progress we’ve made since 2019 when we resolved the back taxes and IRS liens that had been holding us back,” said Sean DeWitt, President of Our Katahdin, the non-profit owner of the former Great Northern Paper Mill in Millinocket. “The rebuilding process is now underway: we’ve reconnected electrical infrastructure, engineering efforts are complete or underway, we’re managing multiple brownfield assessments and cleanup projects, we’ve raised $8 million to pay for the initial infrastructure rollout, and we’re in active conversations every week with potential tenants whose needs are guiding our infrastructure decisions.”

The former paper mill site is being transformed into a multi-use, sustainable industrial and energy park that will be home to a range of wood product manufacturing and offer flexible, small business commercial space, says Lucy Van Hook, Community Development Director of Our Katahdin.

To further incentivize business development and support those now working remotely, Our Katahdin is also focused on broadband development. The group is working hard to connect households in the area to quality internet and support business development and “opportunities for entrepreneurism, quality of place improvements, remote worker attraction, telehealth and educational opportunities,” says Van Hook.

So far, a lot of progress has been made. East Millinocket, Millinocket and Medway recently completed an engineering study to design a fiber network to connect residents and businesses to high speed internet. RFPs for construction and operation of a network that universally provides fiber to the premises of every household in the tri-town region were scheduled for release on Jan. 15, 2021 by the Katahdin Region Broadband Utility. 

And according to Our Katahdin, there are active wifi hotspots in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway, and a fiber network built out along Penobscot Avenue, Millinocket’s main street. The library has 1G fiber network, and has new wireless routers to ensure access from cars outside the building to be safe and socially distanced without losing access.

With all these new developments happening, we can’t forget the Katahdin region is perhaps best known for it’s beautiful landscapes and outdoor activities for the whole family. In fact, Mount Katahdin was just listed as the number two mountain to hike in the world by National Geographic.

There are hundreds of miles of well-groomed snowmobile trails to enjoy, as well as ATV-friendly towns and trails connecting to the state ATV trail system. You can hike for hours on hundreds of miles of trails, including dozens in Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

During the warmer months, there are dozens of regional lakes and ponds for boating, swimming, camping and fishing. 

“Golden Road wilderness has access for canoe trips including the start of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, white water rafting on the Penobscot River, kayaking, fly and rod fishing, hunting, bird watching, backcountry camping in public wilderness areas such as The Nature Conservancy’s Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and several Maine Public Reserved Lands including Nahmakanta, Telos and Seboeis,” says van Hook.

And stargazers will enjoy the exceptional views. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was recently designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary for the quality of its naturally dark night skies. You can find awe-inspiring views of stars and planets and occasional displays of the aurora borealis, according to the National Park Service.

There have been some new additions to the area’s activities as well. Most recently, new biking and snowshoeing trails behind Stearns High School in Millinocket, which are part of a phased build out of trails in town.

“Katahdin Area Trails has developed several new, single-track mountain biking trails, new

groomed ski trails expanded two years ago, and a large network of trails,” says Van Hook.

The Penobscot River Trails offer 25 km of world-class skiing, snowshoeing and biking trails as well as access for kayaking. To round out the all season activities, there is also a new pump track, a circuit track meant to simulate a mountain biking trail, in Patten at the Patten Academy Park.

The Katahdin region has to adjust to COVID-19 like the rest of the country, but Van Hook says most places have been able to adjust in some way. 

“Appalachian Trail Cafe adjusted their menu and [now offers] curbside only pick up,” said Van Hook. “Magic City Med Shop was opened during a pandemic, [and] operates in-person with masks. Butterfly Soul Yoga started this spring [offering] classes outside during the summer and fall and is now offering socially distanced, masked yoga class at Pir2Peer Recovery Center,” said Van Hook.

This year, Millinocket plans to continue making improvements to its downtown facades, downtown event development, the downtown park, ice skating rink and other public amenities.

Fundraising always plays a huge part in the area’s economic future. In 2020, Mobilize Katahdin raised close to $20,000 for direct relief to Katahdin community residents to help with COVID. In addition, Our Katahdin worked with local chamber to distribute $10,000 directly to locally

owned businesses.

“Our Katahdin partnered with the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce,” said Van Hook. “This was the third round of Community Stimulus gift certificates. Our Katahdin raised $5,000 in match funds to double the value of gift certificates purchased for locally owned businesses.” Gift certificates were sold on Dec. 5, which would typically be marathon weekend in the area. Without the Katahdin Marathon this year, this was a way to help boost local businesses, says Van Hook.

For 2021, Our Katahdin’s biggest fundraiser will be centered around finishing the renovation of its co-retail and co-working space at 230 Penobscot Ave., where they are redesigning the interior to be as safe as possible with COVID-19 guidelines, improving accessibility and inclusion for new entrepreneurs, and ensuring that visitors and outdoor recreationists feel welcome in the space. 

“Renovating the biggest, baddest building on Penobscot Avenue has been a long process and involved many fantastic partners,” said Van Hook. “We are committed to completing the renovation and look forward to opening the doors to a new opportunity hub to serve entrepreneurs and community.”

For more information about the Katahdin region, visit the Chamber of Commerce website at katahdinmaine.com or Our Katahdin at ourkatahdin.com.

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