By Avern Danforth, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
We need a serious conversation about jobs and how we can create more of them, particularly in northern Maine.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In communities such as East Millinocket, Millinocket, Medway and Stacyville, the unemployment rate is two or three times the state average.
While there are many positive signs of economic recovery and growth in Bangor, Portland and along the coast, things are very different inland and in rural areas.
It’s time that we become bolder in our approach and willing to consider new ideas, even if they cut against the grain of the past. Nostalgia is not an economic development plan; and it won’t create jobs.
Right now there is an opportunity for a major new investment in the Katahdin region that would create between 450-1,000 jobs without hurting existing businesses, the environment or traditional recreational opportunities.
Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a nonprofit foundation that owns just under 100,000 acres east of Baxter State, has developed a new proposal to create a 75,000-acre national park and an adjacent 75,000-acre national recreation area.
The foundation is prepared to donate its land for the creation of the park and recreation area and to create a $40 million endowment to support its operations.
The park would capitalize on the incredible brand of the National Park Service, while the national recreation area would forever protect critical snowmobile trails and access for hunting.
The job numbers come from two economic reports produced by Headwaters Economics and peer-reviewed by leading economists in Maine.
The reports looked at economic growth in areas similar to the Katahdin region and found that, without exception, those areas with a park and recreation area grow faster than similar areas without them.
“These regions have capitalized on visitation, non-local spending, and related job impacts to grow and diversify their economies, including sectors that pay above average wages,” the reports found.
The Katahdin region has always been heavily dependent on the forest products industry. That remains true today. And there is great sensitivity in the region to any proposal that might hurt the ability to recruit new manufacturing to the region.
The economists took a thorough look at the issue. There’s little evidence of economic downside, including to the forest products industry, with the creation of a national park and national recreation area.
On the other hand, the report found strong evidence that a park and recreation area would create new economic opportunities: new travel and tourism activity; the ability to attract people, retirees and businesses across a range of sectors; and economic growth including higher-wage jobs.
It’s not a debate about timber versus tourism.
Instead, it’s a question about the future and whether we are prepared to take the steps necessary to put people to work and create new opportunities for our children and grandchildren.
The national park and national recreation area would be limited in size by the legislation creating it and would include strong local voices in their creation and management.
The jobs created would go beyond just seasonal or low-wage work. Other areas with national parks and recreation areas have been successful in competing for relatively high-wage service industries such as health care, finance and insurance, and professional and technical services.
In an era when more and more workers can choose where to live, a national park and recreation area and great quality of life can be the deciding factors.
National parks and national recreation areas also help their host areas diversify their economies in ways that support new economic growth.
A national park and recreation area won’t solve all the problems of rural Maine by themselves. To maximize their impact, the entire region will need to commit to a plan that expands access to information technology, invests in roads and bridges and schools, and becomes more open to new avenues of economic growth and investment.
But the park and recreation area do represent a foundation on which to build and to begin the process of bringing people — and jobs — back to the Katahdin region.
Avern Danforth is a native northern Mainer, retired Great Northern Paper Co. manager and past chairman of the Millinocket Town Council. He is currently a member of the Millinocket Planning Board and the Board of Directors of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce.