By Matthew Polstein, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
In the April 24 Bangor Daily News article “Trump, LePage actions threaten Maine’s national monument,” Gov. Paul LePage described the Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument as cut over forests of no particular interest.
“There is nothing that is going to happen [with the monument],” LePage said, predicting it would add nothing to the Katahdin region’s economy.
While I have no idea where the governor gathers his “facts,” the past and projected business of New England Outdoor Center, Twin Pine Camps and the River Drivers Restaurant, a well-established destination resort I own in the region, shows just the opposite.
At the New England Outdoor Center and Twin Pine Camps, on Millinocket Lake, we started seeing evidence of the monument’s influence in May 2016. People, most of whom were already visiting Acadia National Park, came and stayed with us, citing talk of a new national monument in the Katahdin region as the catalyst for their visit. All left promising to return, as area attractions and a landscape with stunning natural beauty both on the soon-to-be Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument and Baxter State Park had captured their interest.
That momentum and excitement continued to build throughout the summer, taking off when the monument was designated by President Barack Obama on August 24.
The monument breathed new life into our fall and drove a 33 percent year-over-year increase in revenue at the River Drivers restaurant as day and overnight visitation to the region grew. It proved to be a good warmup for this past winter when our overall business, driven by snowmobiling, grew 61 percent, easily passing our best winter ever.
Clearly, the consistent snowpack was the major driver for the increase in winter visitation. But it should be noted that the fake news, long and liberally shared, that the area’s vital snowmobile business would be adversely impacted by a monument designation was crushed by a region-wide boom in snowmobiling this winter. Great riding and groomed trails on monument land provided connectivity across the region and played an important role in snowmobiler satisfaction.
Looking forward, we continue to see substantially higher demand for lodging in our facilities. In fact, our May/June reservations (determined by looking at the comparative dollar value of our bookings for May and June as of April 25) are 65 percent higher than our three-year average, and 84 percent higher than demand was in May and June of 2016.
This growth is astonishing and unprecedented in the 21 years we have run Twin Pine Camps and represents over 1,000 additional bed nights and $70,000 in new lodging revenue in May and June alone.
July and August are also showing demand that exceeds last year’s but the numbers are muted by another factor that bodes well for the Katahdin region — on many dates we are full and referring guests to other lodging in the area.
Demand that exceeds our capacity will support our next round of investment. We are working toward adding 15 percent annually to our lodging capacity for the next few years, a move that will be further supported by investment in expanded meeting and function space.
These investments and the corresponding opportunity and security they offer our employees, as well as financing and investment partners, are directly linked to the increased publicity resulting from the monument designation.
In addition to expansion at Twin Pines, we have partnered with Maine Heritage Timber to renovate a historic building on Millinocket’s main street, Penobscot Avenue. The renovation adds sales office and retail space, which our respective companies will need as a result of the monument designation.
The very best news, however, is that we are not alone. There is a new sense of excitement and optimism in the region as numerous groups, including the Katahdin Tourism Partnership, Our Katahdin, Katahdin Revitalization, Katahdin Area Trails and the Butler Conservation Fund, bring to the region energy, resources and a growing willingness to work collaboratively for a brighter economic future.
It is clear that the designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument flipped a switch in the collective consciousness of the region as to what was possible. New customers, energy and investment are following and create a renewed sense of hope that the Katahdin region has a future and not just a past.
LePage should join the people of the Katahdin region in their efforts to make the most of the monument’s sustainable and compatible presence in the region. He could start by stopping calls to overturn the designation of the monument.
Matthew Polstein, the owner of the New England Outdoor Center, has owned businesses in the Katahdin region for 30 years. He served on the Millinocket Town Council and is currently a board member of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters.