Media Archive

County towns starting small for salvation

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 165, No. 10, March 05, 2003

By Jessica Lee
Staff Writer

Eastern Piscataquis towns keen on need for tourism

BROWNVILLE Tourism and small businesses may be the salvation for eastern Piscataquis communities, hard hit by employee layoffs and business out-migration.

A dozen business leaders and town officials gathered last week to brainstorm solutions and relay concerns, as well as to share resources.

The consensus of those present was that the region needs to promote itself as a tourist attraction, possibly
petitioning the state Department of Transportation to designate Route 11 as a scenic byway to Baxter State
Park, and assisting in the development of hotels, restaurant and other tourism-based businesses.

The Feb. 27 meeting was called initially to discuss the closing of the Great Northern Paper Co. mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket,and any impact that closure is having on the area. Brownville Town Manager Sophie Wilson noted, as well, that the rising fuel prices are also a concern.

"We need to hear what we can do," she told the audience at the Brownville Alumni building.

"We were in the toilet before GNP, with Dexter Shoe and the B & A [Bangor and Aroostook Railroad System]," said Liz Gerrish, who attended the meeting with her husband and business partner, Danny Gerrish. Together, they operate Earl Gerrish and Sons Inc., a trucking business.

"All the jobs we had were shipped overseas," she continued, "unless you want to go to Puerto Rico."

Approximately 500 Piscataquis County residents were laid off last year with the closing of Dexter Shoe's manufacturing plants locally. Another 70 employees of the now defunct and sold Bangor & Aroostook Railroad System remain unemployed. And, the closing of the GNP mills could leave as many as 100 more residents without a job although final figures are not available, yet.

Gerrish said that the region needs to promote its recreational bounties such as the network of groomed snowmobile trails, and hiking in Gulf Hagas and the Katahdin Ironworks to the rest of the state and the nation.

Wilson agreed, but said that there is a lack of beds places for tourists to sleep overnight with no motels, hotels and few camps for rent in the area. Many people who visit the county, she said, simply pass through and don't take the time to stop, simply because there is no place for them to sleep overnight. She said the town is working with a couple who wants to open a motel/restaurant, but that is not finalized.

Wilson said that promoting the region to tourism takes significant time and money, and "we'd have to
have a really good plan."

Mark Scarano, director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, said that a tourism plan would give facts to any developer looking to build a hotel or other attraction in the area.

It also would point to those areas of weaknesses that the towns could work to strengthen, he added.

Scarano said that there may be state money available to the towns, as the state is promoting regionalization efforts.

Wilson said that the towns also need to promote small businesses, in order to avoid mass layoffs of employees by any one business in the future.

"Businesses, like people, are bom and they die," Wilson said. "Can you imagine how much stronger we'd be if we had smaller businesses and we built on diversity?"

The out-migration of business has been followed by a similar dwindling of the population. While cheap property and a a rural me have enticed many retirees to the region, many are avoiding the service center communities, noted Bob Hamlin, selectman in Brown ville. "Every place that the state has projected an increase [in population] over the next decade has no municipal water, no sewer, no fire department, no police ... People want more room; they want an acre or two, and they want less taxes," he said.

Jeffrey Gahagan, regional vice president of Maine Saving Credit Union in Milo, said it is important to get people to visit the region or live here who are willing and able to spend money. This is primarily families and younger people, he said.

He said that if the communities start to develop their natural resources, the hotels, the tourists and the money will come.

Bill Graves, owner of B & W Glass in Brownville, said that the state, as well, needs to eliminate red tape and allow businesses and communities to flourish.

Wilson said that a follow-up meeting will be held in the spring, in order for the towns to prioritize a plan of action and address the need for better signage.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.