By Kathy Gagnon, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Though the mill in Millinocket has been closed and torn down for some time, the sight of the mill stacks crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust was both epic and devastatingly sad. The symbolism was jarring, but we watched the end of an era that built and ran these towns for generations. Though we knew it was inevitable, it was shocking to see.
These days, not much is left of the booming towns but our memories. Times have changed, and life goes on. How life continues in the area will depend on friendly collaboration between towns and the people still living there. Our economic opportunities have drastically changed. To move forward, we will need to redefine what the new opportunities are and what we, as a community, want.
For as long as I can remember, the towns of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway have all preferred to stand alone. Consolidation has never really been popular or approached with open minds as to the benefits, as well as the downsides. We may not have needed each other in our “mill era,” but times have changed and so must we in order to survive.
Around the country, small towns, which were built on the paper or steel industries, are shutting down and becoming ghost towns. We are not alone with this disaster. I’ve been searching for some solutions that other small towns have used when faced with this growing problem.
I found the towns that have successfully rebuilt have done so by strong community commitment and collaborating with the nearest other small towns rather than taking a stand-alone approach.
For them, the starting point for success was joining with other towns to share ideas and strategy. They learned to work together, putting aside differences and making their common goal — saving the towns. They worked up a strategy for economic development and a strategy for revitalization and then wove the strategies together to work hand in hand. Many of these towns didn’t have what we already have to build on, but they worked together using their existing resources and seeking out new opportunities. Even then, it took years to put it all together and see results.
For better than 10 years, I have fought against a national park in our area. Though I had no personal dependence on the mill as an employer, I believed it was important to stand up with those who did rely on it, and our towns relied on it.
Now, it’s no longer a matter of having a national park here, or not, it’s a matter of saving our towns. The mills are not going to save us. Even if, best-case scenario, something is done to create jobs at the site of the mills, it will never be the same. No one entity, be it industry or tourism, can “fix” what the loss of our mills has done to the area. Diversification and consolidation of schools and services can.
I believe it’s time for the people of this area to reassess all of our options. Much has changed over the past few years, and changing times require changing strategy. It starts with all of us making a choice to put differences behind us and work together.
Stronger tourism isn’t going to hurt and could result in drawing more diverse businesses to the area. Building on our tourism and recreation could create smaller industrial businesses that cater to these activities with well paying, skilled jobs. Numerous smaller industrial businesses could revive the economy much better than one that controls everything for everyone.
The idea of not wanting “trinket jobs” needs to be tempered with understanding that we need to start with whatever is going to get things moving so that as a community, we can grow into something to once again be proud of. The alternative is to continue fighting until there is nothing left to save.
Maybe it’s time to look at where we are today and reconsider every option, as it is today, not from the standpoint of pre-mill demise.
Kathy Gagnon lives in Medway. She was born and raised in Millinocket.