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Things don’t usually appear out of thin air, not even in the “magic city.” Economic redevelopment was never going to happen overnight in the Millinocket area after the former paper mill vanished along with the jobs it supported.
As we’ve said before, the effort to redevelop the former mill site and bring more jobs back to the region isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon. And while there have been false starts along the way, with various plans from various entities falling through in recent years, there are positive signs that the recently announced $300 million data center will be different.
Nautilus Data Technologies, a California company, plans to locate a new 60-megawatt data center on part of the old mill site. The company has signed a 99-year lease with Our Katahdin, the nonprofit that owns the property. The first phase of the project is set to begin operation by the end of 2022, with construction expected to start this year, and could bring up to 30 jobs.
That certainly wouldn’t replace the volume of jobs lost from the mill — but this isn’t meant to be a replacement. As Our Katahdin president Sean DeWitt told the editorial board Monday, his organization views Nautilus “as an anchor to build upon” as it continues its work to redevelop the site.
Given some recent history with the former mill, including plans for a torrefied wood facility and then a cross-laminated timber facility that didn’t work out, we couldn’t help but approach the data center announcement with some hesitancy.
In the editorial board interview, DeWitt highlighted several factors that can help position this project for success, including that Nautilus is working with a proven technology, in an established market and with several customers already lined up here in Maine. He also emphasized that this has been several years in the making, and that the process is further along than it had been in past instances, with a signed lease agreement and engineering and permitting work underway.
In response to our tinge of skepticism, DeWitt, a Millinocket native who has worked in finance and economic development in the U.S. and internationally, acknowledged that “nothing is done until it’s done,” but stressed that “this feels good to us.”
There isn’t just one factor that has helped these plans come together. There’s Nautilus’ technology, which uses water rather than air-based cooling to keep its data servers from overheating, and ample access to water at the former mill. There’s also the ability to access power from the hydroelectric dam on site. The Trump-era Opportunity Zone initiative offers tax benefits for investors, and federal investments have helped redevelopment along the way.
What stands out the most, however, has been the persistence and resilience at the local level, including but not limited to Our Katahdin.
“We knew in the beginning that it was going to be a lot of not very sexy, not very interesting work,” DeWitt said, as reported in the Bangor Daily News over the weekend. “But work that needed to be done.”
It’s true — there’s nothing particularly flashy about resolving an IRS lien or securing EPA Brownfields assessment and cleanup grants. But it’s been necessary work to set the stage for this recent announcement. The engineering and permitting process won’t be flashy either, but it’s an equally necessary step to make sure these plans become a reality for Nautilus and for the region.
Among the many hopeful messages shared Saturday at the data center announcement event, words from former mill employee Wally Paul stood out.
“We were an innovative place — stuff happened here that never happened anywhere else,” Paul said. “And now it seems like it’s starting all over again: we are on the cutting edge.”
If we continue to think about redevelopment in the Millinocket area as a marathon, the work up to this point feels like training and preparation. DeWitt said that Our Katahdin sees this as the starting line, not the finish line, and that’s the right perspective.