In Maine, a town on the brink of extinction plots a comeback
MILLINOCKET, Maine — The tidy, white bandstand stands on the edge of a gone-to-seed main street pocked by vacant storefronts where plywood has replaced plate glass, where hope has nearly been chased away by a gut-punched economy on the edge of collapse.
The Great Northern Paper Company — for a century the full-employment guarantor for generations of paper-makers who once made this town hum — built that bandstand.
In fact, the company, which sprang up like Brigadoon at the dawn of the 20th century, helped build almost everything here in “Magic City,’’ a place conjured from the woods in the shadow of Mount Katahdin and powered by the waters of a tributary of the west branch of the Penobscot River.
Great Northern’s endlessly deep pockets helped pay for the local hospital, the airport, the baseball uniforms that bore its initials, the goal posts at the local high school, and the concrete foundations for the homes of workers who streamed through its gates and punched its time clock.
The paper mill stopped operating in 2008, and when its smokestacks were demolished a few years later, residents watched with disbelief. It was the painful end of an era. And the lights on the little white bandstand on Penobscot Avenue, brightly lit for Christmas, went dark. Seemingly for good.
“When I was a kid, the downtown’s bandstand was like the cultural center of our community,’’ said Sean DeWitt, whose father worked at the paper mill here for 42 years.
While at a conference in Peru a couple of years ago, bored and with time on his hands, DeWitt built a website in an hour and asked for donations. The dark bandstand was a metaphor for his beloved hometown so he sent this message: Let’s brighten Millinocket again.
“Twenty-hours later, we had raised $650 to buy the lights,’’ DeWitt, 42, said. “Messages poured in like, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me.’ This was small. It was microscopic. But it was a win.’’
DeWitt is president of Our Katahdin, a community and economic redevelopment group led by the sons and daughters of paper mill employees who are determined to save the little town their forebears built.
A year ago, they purchased the 1,400-acre mill site for $1. They are negotiating with the Internal Revenue Service for partial forgiveness of $1.4 million in back taxes. They want to take economic baby steps. The days of the 4,000-worker mills are gone. The future? Think seven or eight businesses where 100 or 200 employees fuel a more diverse and resilient economy.
“If people think we’re going to bring the kinds of jobs back that we had in the 1950s, I would say the chance of success is precisely zero,’’ DeWitt told me. “We have to embrace the world as it is. We still have the transmission lines from the dams. We still have affordable power. We have a cool climate for data centers. We have some things that nobody on the East Coast has.
“Boy, there’s a different feeling around town now.’’
You can feel that sitting in the conference room at a handsome refurbished building on Millinocket’s main street, an old, red-brick former Odd Fellows hall that now houses Designlab, a graphic design and marketing firm run by Jessica Masse and her husband, John Hafford.
They’ve got two young kids, sterling resumes, an impressive list of clients, and a strong Internet connection that grants them access to business far from the woods of Maine.
As Masse sat at a large wooden table in that conference room the other morning, she nodded as members of the Our Katahdin group talked about the bracing realities of rebuilding an economy from the ashes of an old paper mill.
“We are still fragile as a community, but I have no doubt that we will recover,’’ Masse said. “Before they lit the lights on that bandstand in 2015, we were thinking of leaving. It was so negative around here. But that made the difference for us. We wanted to stay. That tipped the scales. People just need a little bit of hope.’’
Optimism like that will come in handy considering the task at hand. Since 2000, the town’s population has declined by about 16 percent and grown older. Its median age in 2015 was 48. Its median income is about $30,000 a year.
“The community has gone through a whole succession of letdown after letdown,’’ said Mike Osborne, Our Katahdin’s vice president and a fifth-generation Mainer. “Great Northern took care of us for 100 years. We have to take care of the next 100 years.’’
The first new building block toward rebirth slipped into place on Tuesday when officials announced a Maine-based firm, a manufacturer of cross-laminated timber, is moving to the old mill site, bringing 100 jobs with it.
Great Northern’s skeleton is all that’s left of the old mill, a vast industrial site — thick with ice these days — patrolled by a single security guard.
This place once accounted for 72 percent of the town’s tax revenues. Now, the old administration building sits cold and empty, the plaster on its walls crumbling. The old time clock is long gone. There are rooms with empty desks and lonesome coat hangers. Speakers for an old intercom system hang silently on the peeling walls.
As we toured the dark cavernous building that used to house the Number 11 paper machine — once the world’s largest — Dick Angotti lets his mind drift back to the days when he was a young man on the job here, when the sounds of machines pumping out paper was Millinocket’s money-making metronome.
“I can still hear it,’’ said Angotti, who now works for a wood-products engineering firm. “It had a voice of its own. You could tell by the sound and the feel of it if something was wrong. My goal is to turn the lights back on. I refuse to retire until I can see something happening here.’’
Town Manager John Davis worked in the mill here for 30 years and can remember the days when human resources employees would patrol the town’s bars and restaurants to recruit workers for the mill’s ’round-the-clock shifts.
He envisions a new Millinocket economy fueled by biotech businesses and data centers and solar plants. “I haven’t been this optimistic about Millinocket since I got out of high school,’’ said Davis.
From the sidelines, Our Katahdin has a faithful cheering section packed by pensioners, some of whom sit in Dick Manzo’s well-heated garage in the town’s Little Italy section, within sight of the mill where the 86-year-old spent his working life.
These days Manzo holds court, spinning stories about the old days and twisting the arm of a visitor to have a little nip of the anisette that he keeps handy amid the wrenches and saws and lathes of his workplace.
He worked with Sean DeWitt’s grandfather at the Great Northern Paper Company.
“We know these young people who are trying to get this town back on its feet,’’ Manzo told me. “And they’re just as sincere as they are smart. They’re going to bring this place back to life. I just know they are.’’
In the chair next to him Wally Paul, 62, who used to operate the paper mill’s power system, offered his own yardstick by which success should be measured.
“The thing I want to see?’’ asked Paul. “Baby carriages. I want to see young parents pushing baby carriages in town, because that’s the sign of prosperity. You have jobs. That means young people are working again. That means raising families. That means more kids are going to our schools. More businesses are selling things to more people. Baby carriages. That’s what we need.’’
Hours later, as the dusk gathered outside the windows of the downtown Scootic In Restaurant, I sat across the table from Deb Rountree. Across the street, the bandstand stood snow-covered and, with Christmas now over, unlighted.
Rountree is the associate academic dean at the Katahdin Region Higher Education Center. She’s a 1980 graduate of Stearns High School here, whose father and grandfather worked for Great Northern. She knows there were two sides of the old system’s benevolence. With an abundance of jobs came this curse: an atrophied entrepreneurial spirit.
“We can’t stand to lose a lot more,’’ she said. “Everything is kind of hanging in the balance. It was beautiful here. All the buildings were well-maintained and well-kept, and people took pride in this place. That’s the most painful part of this: people losing that sense of pride. I’d love to see a lovely, lively, beautiful main street. But this could go a couple of different ways. We need a few small wins.’’
And as she sipped her coffee, there was no traffic on Penobscot Avenue. No cars. No people. No baby carriages.