Real estate agents and small-business owners near the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument say they’re seeing an uptick in interest and activity.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
It didn’t take long for Alison Perrin to notice a difference at her real estate office after a swath of woods in Maine’s Katahdin region became the property of the National Park Service.
The owner of Perrin Realty in Island Falls said her phone has been “blowing up” with calls from folks looking for land, vacation properties or family-friendly homes from Millinocket to Patten. And Perrin is convinced the buzz surrounding Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a big factor.
“The Katahdin region is on the radar now,” Perrin said. “Even before (Roxanne Quimby) deeded it over to the government, the hoopla and discussion and controversy had already put the region on the radar.”
Four months after President Obama created a roughly 87,500-acre national monument in Maine’s North Woods, there are subtle signs that the controversial designation is starting to pay dividends in the Katahdin region.
Several real estate brokers attributed a spike in inquiries – and occasionally sales – to the monument. Some local businesses are changing offerings to adapt to the new crop of potential visitors. And while opposition to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument persists – with some critics hoping President-elect Donald Trump will reverse Obama’s executive action – others say the divisiveness preceding the designation is declining as local communities seek to capitalize on their new federal neighbor.
“For the first two months there was definitely an increase in foot traffic and people nosing around,” said Jon Ellis, owner of Ellis Family Market, which operates grocery stores in two communities, East Millinocket and Patten, on either end of the national monument land. “People would ask me about it. I think it’s going to be a real positive. I don’t see the negatives.”
‘PEOPLE CALLING AND INQUIRING’
Located just east of Baxter State Park, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes about 10 miles of frontage along the East Branch of the Penobscot River and 14 miles along Wassataquoik Stream, as well as at least three peaks with views of Mount Katahdin.
With her mind set on creating a North Woods national park, Quimby began buying up land in the Katahdin region parcel by parcel beginning in the mid- to late-2000s with the wealth she had earned by selling the Burt’s Bees product line that she had co-founded. Quimby’s nonprofit, Elliotsville Plantation, donated the land to the federal government for a national monument in August along with a pledge of a $40 million endowment after it was clear Quimby would not gain the congressional and local support needed to create a national park.
The National Park Service opened offices in Millinocket and Patten within a day of Obama’s use of his executive authority to designate the land as a national monument. And in the months since, the park service and Elliotsville Plantation have graded two roads to make them more accessible for passenger cars, repaired bridges and improved signage.
But visitors shouldn’t expect any gift shops, informational kiosks or any other facilities, for that matter.
“Be advised that this is a new National Monument and amenities are limited and signage is sparse,” reads a message on the monument’s website. “Cell phone reception can be spotty or non-existent.”
Prior to the designation, about five cars a day passed by the traffic-counter installed on Katahdin Loop Road, which provides seasonal access to the southern end of the property. Immediately afterward, the road was averaging about 20 cars a day and peaked at between 30 and 35 cars daily during Columbus Day week, said Tim Hudson, the National Park Service superintendent for the national monument. Katahdin Loop Road is closed for winter and there are no counters installed on access roads to the more northern end of the park.
Visitors began arriving – albeit in small numbers – almost immediately after the monument designation.
“We did see an influx of people calling and inquiring,” said Terry Hill, co-owner of Shin Pond Village in Mount Chase, which offers camping, lodging and a general store near the monument’s northern end. “We had a variety of people visiting Acadia (National Park) who decided to come up and see what the monument was.”
Like some other business owners who cater to hunters, fishermen and snowmobilers in the area, Hill once opposed a national park or monument on Quimby’s land. She now fully supports the monument and worked with the National Park Service, the local snowmobile club and a neighboring timberland owner to relocate a major snowmobile trail, ITS 85, onto park service land.
Shin Pond Village is renting snowmobiles again for the first time in years and is exploring expanding into other activities, such as biking, in order to expand its four-season clientele base.
“We have come a long way and I am proud to say I was on the other side,” Hill said.
‘IT IS ATTRACTING PEOPLE HERE’
Quimby’s son and the primary spokesman for the national monument, Lucas St. Clair, said recently that Elliotsville Plantation foundation will likely redefine itself now that the land is in federal hands. A major focus of the foundation, St. Clair suggested, will likely be helping rural communities around the national monument thrive and drawing ecotourism to the region.
Not even the most ardent supporters of the monument believe the designation will quickly reverse the recent economic slide caused by the closure of paper mills and other manufacturers in the Katahdin region. Opponents, on the other hand, predict the new federal presence in the region could hamper industrial development while offering only lower-paying or seasonal tourism jobs.
Yet some real estate professionals are already noticing a shift.
Daniel Corcoran, who owns North Woods Real Estate in Millinocket, said that even before the announcement, he was fielding calls from people looking for vacation or investment properties who were banking on prices rising after a designation. And since the announcement, he has sold several properties to out-of-state buyers who were drawn to visit the region by the news coverage of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
One client booked one night at a local lodge to check out the area but ended up staying five weeks and buying two properties. Corcoran said he is currently looking for a third for the client.
“The national monument has focused a spotlight on the area and it is attracting people here,” Corcoran said.
Real estate professionals and private home sellers are also incorporating the new national monument into their sales pitches.
“100+/- acres of fields with fantastic views of Mount Katahdin and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument,” reads one posting for a 230-acre parcel for sale in Patten offered by United Country Lifestyle Properties of Maine. “Build your dream home or get-away on the accessible mountain view property.”
“This lot is on RT 11 that has been designated as part of the Maine Scenic Byways and is the most direct road to Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, our newest national monument designated this summer of 2016,” reads an ad for a 2-acre lot in Medway.
Peter Qualey, a Realtor at United Country Lifestyle Properties, said he had noticed an uptick in activity in towns close to the new national monument, such as Patten and Sherman, but not in places like Island Falls and Oakfield that are a bit farther up the road. That tells him that the monument is already driving up interest. Qualey said he was also seeing more interest in seasonal homes since the designation.
“There have been more people looking and more people buying,” Qualey said. While he had not yet seen much of a difference in real estate prices, which are greatly depressed because of the region’s economic troubles, Qualey said he expects prices will rise eventually.
“You can buy a house up here for the price of a pickup. It’s sad,” he said.
Deciphering the monument’s impacts on prices or the number of sales is difficult because, unlike in more metropolitan areas, there are no real estate trend reports for the Katahdin region available to the public. Many towns currently have a glut of properties on the market as paper mill closures and other economic challenges have driven some residents away. The population of Millinocket, for instance, declined from roughly 6,950 to 4,500 between 1990 and 2010 while Patten’s population fell from 1,256 to 1,017 in that period, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Yet Corcoran said he believes prices are rising, especially for camp lots and vacation properties. In one instance, a client of his who had already lost one property to a higher bidder submitted a bid $10,000 above the $225,000 asking price on a second property only to be outbid once again.
“And two weeks later, the buyer bulldozed it” to build new, Corcoran said. “That was shocking. We haven’t seen action like that up here in years.”
Not everyone in the Katahdin-area real estate market is seeing or expecting a major impact, however.
Scot Walker with First Choice Real Estate in Houlton said a handful of sellers called him immediately after the announcement to ask whether they should increase the prices on their homes or land. He advised the clients to “hold tight,” though.
“There is such a big supply (of properties) right now and that has to level out first,” Walker said. “I think it’s too early for that.”
On the downside, Walker said, the monument remains controversial and may be prompting some sportsmen in the market for camps to look elsewhere to avoid traffic and restrictions on the federal land. But he has not noticed a major shift in either direction.
OPEN THROUGHOUT THE WINTER
Between Sept. 15 and 29, the National Park Service held four “listening sessions” to gather feedback from local residents about opportunities and concerns on the monument land. That feedback – on everything from land use to the dangers of tourists sharing the monument’s dirt access roads with logging trucks – will inform the management plan that park officials are developing for the land.
The monument remains open throughout the winter, although the National Park Service has scaled back its office hours in Millinocket.
It will probably take several summers before roads, infrastructure, trails, campsites and other facilities are upgraded or built to a level that would draw a sizable number of people to Katahdin Woods and Water.
Ellis, the grocery store owner, said he’s heard the talk about Trump potentially undoing Obama’s national monument designations – an unprecedented move almost sure to spark legal challenges from conservation groups. Ellis said that would harm the Katahdin-area communities at a time when they are starting to plan around the monument.
Walker, the Houlton real estate agent, isn’t expecting a significant bump in real estate or other business for a bit longer, although he believes local communities will increasingly grow to accept or embrace the monument.
“We are in it now, so let’s make it a positive,” Walker said.
Perrin, the Island Falls real estate agent, is more optimistic about the short-term effects of the designation and believes it could help draw some Katahdin-area natives back to the area to raise families. She is also seeing less pushback in the months since the announcement.
“We are really coming together as a community,” Perrin said. “I think the monument (designation) has forced people to put aside our differences and work together.”