By Laura Singer
Environmental Funders Network
On October 9 and 10, a group of 16 individuals toured the Katahdin region to hear first-hand from local residents about exciting changes happening in the area. Hosted by the Environmental Funders Network (EFN), the Katahdin Regional Tour brought together philanthropists, investors and congressional staff to hear from nearly 40 people – including nonprofit personnel, business leaders, town managers and volunteer community leaders – about the region’s challenges and tremendous opportunities. We enjoyed a variety of site visits, several panel discussions, and engaging conversations over meals at the beautiful New England Outdoor Center.
The tour showcased the range of creative efforts underway as the region creates a new vision and develops a new identity in the changing economy. It also offered a chance to discuss the obstacles that will need to be overcome. One of the highlights of the first day was walking through downtown Millinocket to stand at the site of the future Millinocket Heritage Square. A project of the Katahdin Tourism Partnership, the overarching goal of this project is to make improvements that will entice additional traffic downtown, encourage independent business development, and bring a community together by opening the view of the downtown commercial district and creating inviting green space.
Participants joined Our Katahdin staff as we toured the former site of the Great Northern paper mill. Currently abandoned, the mill site holds great promise to attract new businesses due to its abundant hydroelectric energy and clean water. Standing at the site and speaking with former mill employee David DeWitt and his son Sean (Chairman of Our Katahdin) made real the magnitude of the economic collapse that has impacted the community.
“Frankly, it’s one thing to read a grant proposal and staff’s assessment and an entirely different thing to spend time on the ground meeting and talking with the folks who have to live and implement whatever the program is to dig out of the hole they’re in.”
Our bus traveled along the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic By-way (Rt. 11), where we gained a true sense of the sweeping beauty of the landscape and engaged in conversation about tourism development and several initiatives to attract outdoor enthusiasts to the region throughout all four seasons. It was impressive to see the number of groups working toward constructing better trail infrastructure to allow people with various outdoor interests (biking, hiking, snowmobiling, ATVing, etc.) to gain access to the outdoors.
“ [I was] blown away by the energy, ideas and activities of a small group of people thinking very big!”
The area’s deep connection to the lumber industry was unmistakable; lumber harvesting has played a crucial role in shaping the region’s cultural identity. A visit to the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum highlighted the predominant role lumber has played for more than a century. The collection of artifacts and outdoor buildings, including a replica of an 1820’s logging camp, were impressive. The museum also houses the offices of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (KWWM). We heard directly from proprietors of local lodging about the positive impact the monument is having on interest in visiting region. What was remarkable, however, were the lack of signs to direct people toward the entrance to the monument. Although efforts have been made to increase the signs along the Scenic By-way and also install signage specific to the KWWM, it has been a slow process.
“It was great to hear how the towns are working together.”
From Millinocket to Medway to Patten, it is clear that the people of the Katahdin region have been working hard to create a collaborative vision and develop creative solutions to revitalize the economy. Our time together provided a special opportunity to network and make connections with each other as well as learn. Collectively, we came away excited by the collaborative nature of the work taking place and the various opportunities available for direct engagement in the Katahdin region.
“It’s exciting to see the important, future-oriented work that is happening on the ground in the Katahdin region.”
The Environmental Funders Network received tremendous support from the community while planning this tour. In particular, Lucy Van Hook (Our Katahdin), Bill Patterson (TNC), Matt Polstein (Katahdin Area Trails), Josh McIntyre (EMDC) and Mike Wilson (Northern Forest Center) served as advisors for the tour and worked to help shape the agenda and facilitate the discussions. The Katahdin Regional Tour was hosted by the Environmental Funders Network, with additional financial support provided by Lucas St. Clair, the Maine Community Foundation, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, the Cabin Foundation, and the Quimby Family Foundation.
If you missed the Katahdin Regional Tour and would like to hear more about our impressions, what we learned and what the philanthropic community can do to support the economic transition of the region, please join funders on Tuesday, December 4th from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM at the Maine Community Foundation in Portland! RSVP to Laura Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org.