By Lindsay Downing, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
After college and a few years of travel, my husband and I recently decided to return to my home town of Mount Chase to take over the family business — Mt. Chase Lodge. It was a difficult decision. We were coming home to a region devastated by the paper industry. As the sole economic driver for a century, paper’s abrupt departure led to uncertainty for many business owners. For those forced to close or move over the last decade, there was nothing uncertain about what was done to our towns.
But the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is opening new doors of opportunity. Not only for visitors from Maine and around the world, but also true for local individuals and small businesses with the experience and desire to help those visitors.
In the two months since the official designation, visitors have been seizing this opportunity in a big way. At Mt. Chase Lodge, we’ve seen a remarkable increase in both inquiries and visitation since the end of August. Snowmobile season historically has been our busiest time. But this fall we’ve been so busy, we’ve had to send people to neighboring businesses.
People are coming from all over the country just to check out the monument. At one point, around our large dinner table on a Tuesday night in the lodge, we were joined by people from Virginia, California, Michigan, Texas and Maine. Other small-business owners are seeing these same trends and looking to the future with nervous excitement. My husband and I are no exception.
While the National Park Service is currently in the first stages of the management planning process, it is already making improvements to infrastructure on the monument land. Simultaneously, community leaders throughout the towns bordering the monument are trying to wrap their heads around the possibilities and challenges this monument brings. And small businesses, such as ours, are struggling with decisions about investment and growth.
The forests, mountains, rivers and lakes of Katahdin Woods and Waters always have been a treasure. But it’s their new national recognition that is bringing this boon. And this is just the beginning.
I’ve been to several national parks and monuments. They are each spectacular in their own way. But the gateway communities around them, while always prosperous, vary in their authenticity, charm and their ability to become part of visitors’ experiences. It’s this quality of life that makes visitors return or even stay.
Everyone I’ve spoken to — those who’ve lived here all their lives and those visiting the monument — agree this region and its people have something unique to offer. The question is how we ensure the thousands of people who will visit the monument both serve and are served by our communities without sacrificing who we are. To answer that, we must first decide who we are and what we think that should look like. Do we want small-family businesses or large corporate box stores lining our streets? American flags or neon signs? Do we want economic development to be centered in our existing communities or to sprawl across the forest without thought or plan?
Everyone in our communities needs to be part of the conversation: schools, churches, town officials, businesses, farms, environmentalists, guides, hunters, mechanics. We must leave our preconceived notions and biases at the door. After all, the reality is that none of us has ever done this before. The last designation of a national monument in Maine was 100 years ago, among different communities in a very different landscape.
Finally, while this national monument is brand new, our country has 100 years of collective experience with these types of designations. We can look to other areas the country to see what has worked and what hasn’t, what we want and what we don’t. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But we do need to thoughtfully and collectively decide in which direction it rolls.
You’re either at the table or on the menu. Let’s pull up our chairs and be the ones who decide what type of future will be served.
Lindsay Downing is the owner of Mt. Chase Lodge. She lives in Mount Chase.