MACHIAS — The entirety of Hancock and Washington counties could be deemed a National Heritage Area, following the completion of a feasibility study conducted by the Sunrise County Economic Council (SCEC), an organization whose mission is in part to facilitate job creation and prosperity in Washington County.
Embarking on this initiative was prompted by concern from members of the wild blueberry industry, said Crystal Hitchings, director of the SCEC. As some small growers and businesses have recently gone out of business, Hitchings said the goal started to preserve the industry that is so integral to Maine. It then grew to encompass multiple industries and facets of the Downeast heritage.
The proposed area, which would be called the Downeast Maine National Heritage Area, includes the entirety of both coastal counties, “from the St. Croix River to the Penobscot River, and from the Bold Coast to the Grand Lakes,” a statement from the SCEC released in December reads.
“The [National Heritage Area] program provides tools and matching funds to support community-guided planning and development based on local priorities for cultural and natural heritage preservation,” according to the statement.
How the federal funding can be used to develop and fund community projects is rather far-reaching.
“It can run a very broad gamut,” Hitchings said. “What do the community members value? And what do they need to create to help keep the things that they value alive?”
Some potential examples Hitchings listed are funding and expanding a blueberry heritage museum, creating educational programs about the area’s fisheries and how those may be affected by climate change and working with farmers who want to incorporate agrotourism to their farms.
Hitchings explained that the council’s application will have a completeness review by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior in January. If the application is deemed complete, it will be brought forward by the state’s congressional delegation, put into legislation and brought to Congress to be funded, which could happen in the spring.
Despite continued polarization amid American politics, there is usually bipartisan support for the National Heritage Areas Program, Hitchings shared.
“It’s typically a well-supported program,” she said, noting that U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins from Maine are “very supportive” of the initiative.
The 18-month feasibility study, which was led by local representatives and received public input, was done to see if such a designation could be supported by the area.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), which sets the base criteria to be met by heritage sites, “National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.”
The areas differ from national parks in that they are “large lived-in landscapes” where communities “determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.”
With the completion of the study announced Dec. 14, members of the public can now view the study and share their thoughts.