Spotlight on the ‘real’ Maine

Pride of Madawaska, we’re proud of you. Thanks to all who got this band of middle and high school students on the road to represent Maine at the presidential inauguration. Every American should visit the nation’s capital at least once, and to be invited as part of an inauguration is a rare honor. A stone’s throw from the Canadian border, Madawaska is a long, long bus ride from D.C.

Madawaska does not make headlines often, nor does Millinocket, unless a paper mill is closing. Cranberry Islander Gary Allen may have found a key to economic development that has eluded decades of experts. Organize a marathon, and the runners will come.

Two years ago, Allen got a Millinocket marathon going, waiving the customary registration fee and urging participants instead to spend their money in local businesses. The marathon was back this past December, even colder, but getting bigger.

It was an event typical of Maine, with a spaghetti dinner, a variety show, a craft fair and a short film festival. Local businesses were delighted. It proves the “power of one” and the value of outside-the-box thinking when it comes to improving the fortunes of rural Maine.

In Eastport, a group of committed locals are continuing economic development efforts through the arts and preservation of the town’s historic infrastructure. A funky New Year’s Eve celebration recognizes the New Year at 11 p.m. (midnight in the Atlantic time zone) and Down East New Year an hour later with the lowering of a wooden sardine from a third-floor window.

Eastport is a community determined to hang on to its heritage. City promoters have a plan to renovate the old canning company into shops, services, residences and hotel rooms. Belfast has had some success preserving its old, brick buildings that give a sense of the town’s past, though their shops are attractively up to date. Thinking small and local yields the best results.

Ellsworth has a pleasant village center, and then there is High Street. There are efforts afoot to improve the strip development along that roadway, but the downtown is where the opportunity is. A valiant effort a few years back to acquire the property along the river for public use fell short of funding. If it comes again, the town should seize it.

Bar Harbor is constantly trying to save itself from developmental excess, given the visitation rate and the money to be made in selling anything, anywhere. Given the challenges, the town still has a walkable, livable vibe, but it is a constant battle to keep it that way, and property values are not helping. Works in progress are increasing in scale, and despite local ordinances, not always in keeping with the feel of the village.

Washington County has a unique opportunity to retain authenticity. Eastport has proved it can be done. Social problems are abundant, and a nucleus of planning enthusiasm is yet to rise up in a cohesive fashion. The Latino community that has taken root there could be leading the way. Best Mexican food in Maine? Milbridge!

Economic development is often formulaic, with a tendency to homogenize. A local citizenry with a clear vision and great determination can sometimes do what all the economic development experts cannot. Motivated by a love of hometown, they bring a passion to the table that hired guns cannot, and they dare to showcase the original and the quirky.

Hancock County is rich in assets that most tourists would love to uncover. Most towns are moving toward some degree of self-promotion, but often there is a love-hate relationship with the idea of opening their communities to more tourism.

Some residents and many summer residents don’t want to see their communities “spoiled” by an influx of visitors. The “quaintness” and relative isolation of Deer Isle-Stonington, Blue Hill, Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro are part of their charm.

Yet in order to maintain a viable population and work opportunities for their own homegrown young people, there must be some degree of development. If it is to be in keeping with the nature of those communities, it must be driven by locals sensitive to the history, traditions and values of those towns.

The upsurge of “big box” stores in Ellsworth has not managed to kill off the downtown area as was once predicted, but it hasn’t made it easy on the survivors, either. Now the pendulum is swinging back toward local businesses with their unique goods and services and an owner with whom you are on a first-name basis.

When it comes to “thinking local,” Hancock County has great potential. We have abundant small farms and farmers’ markets and value-added food products such as cheeses and preserves. Almost every town in the county has a thriving art scene. The trend toward “slow business,” small in scale and locally owned, is a perfect fit for Hancock County, and communities can turn it to their advantage with controlled development in keeping with their own visions of the future.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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