by BDN editorial board
Bangor Daily News editorial
The town councils in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway have spent a lot of time discussing the possibility of a nearby national park. This sometimes heated debate has taken valuable time and energy away from the larger issue of the region’s need to develop a more coherent recreational economy.
Rural Maine has not developed a coherent regional strategy for better developing and marketing its tourism and recreation assets. It needs to do this, with or without a national park in its future.
A lot has changed in the Katahdin region in the last decade. When paper mills were running in Millinocket and East Millinocket, the idea of a national park was largely derided and “Ban Roxanne” bumper stickers — a reference to Roxanne Quimby, the entrepreneur who began buying up land around Baxter State Park — adorned many pickup trucks in the area.
Now that the mill in Millinocket has been partially torn down and the one in East Millinocket is shuttered and facing an uncertain future, growing the tourism economy sounds like a good idea to many residents and leaders. There is growing support for a park, an effort overseen by Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, through Elliotsville Plantation Inc.
What hasn’t changed is that the region’s recreational and tourism offerings are not coordinated or well marketed, according to retired Bowdoin College economics professor David Vail, who has written extensively about recreational opportunities in Maine’s North Woods. More recently, he was involved in a study of the economic benefits of the proposed national park and preserve. Having the national park logo and the amenities Elliotsville Plantation is developing — and the $40 million endowment it would set aside along with 150,000 acres of land — would certainly help the area become a more appealing destination, he said.
But, rural tourism areas, from the Mahoosuc Mountains in western Maine to the Down East Lakes on the eastern border, need a strategy beyond a national park and preserve.
In a 2007 essay in Maine Policy Review, Vail offered a harsh assessment of tourism in rural Maine. Lodging, dining and service in the region, with a few exceptions, are not up to the high standards expected by the travelers the region needs to draw. This is especially problematic as fewer people participate in fishing, hunting and downhill skiing. In addition, the scenery and recreational opportunities in the region have been over-hyped as “world class” when they aren’t, Vail said in the essay.
Plus, interior Maine is farther from population centers and airports and train stations than competitors for tourism dollars such as the Adirondacks and the White Mountains.
There are some bright spots. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land, including frontage on Moosehead Lake, have been preserved either through state purchase or conservation easements. New accommodations, from the New England Outdoors Center’s cabins on Millinocket Lake to the Maine Huts and Trails facilities in western Maine to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s lodges in the Moosehead Lake area, have been built or refurbished and opened to the public.
But there is no entity coherently marketing all of these opportunities to travelers. The Maine Office of Tourism’s budget is too small, and its focus is on coastal Maine, which generates the bulk of the state’s out-of-state visits. Regional efforts are small and uncoordinated. And the moniker “Maine Highlands,” which the tourism office uses to refer to a huge swath of interior Maine, isn’t cutting it and should be retired, perhaps in favor of something that conjures up the powerful legacy of Henry David Thoreau.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, has a proposal that might help. His bill would have the Department of Economic and Community Development, working with relevant state agencies, develop packages of technical and financial assistance for which regional groups trying to foster tourism could apply. For example, a group might need help with signs and picnic areas for a network of trails. Another might seek training for staff in its lodging and dining establishments.
McCabe also hopes for greater collaboration across counties and regions so visitors know what recreational, dining and lodging options best fit their interests.
Nothing will transform rural Maine overnight, but focused attention on outdoor recreation and tourism is long overdue.