America's Crown Jewel; Greenville Looks to the Lake

Aug 16, 2018

Piscataquis County is Maine's least populous county with fewer than six people per square mile. And it's losing inhabitants.

With its fortunes closely tied to those of the paper and lumber industries, the region has some of the lowest per capita income in the Northeast, with one in five households living in poverty. But Piscataquis County also boasts some of the state's most spectacular scenery, which the residents around Moosehead Lake are banking on to help them write the area’s next chapter.

Renowned naturalist and writer, Henry David Thoreau, who hiked and paddled his way through the Maine woods, described Moosehead Lake as "a gleaming silver platter."

But the residents of Greenville have a different vision: "America's Crown Jewel. The views, the people, the climate — just everything,” says Matthew St. Laurent.

St. Laurent, who also works as a reserve police officer, moved permanently to Greenville in 2015. Laurent and his wife bought the local auto parts store and opened a shop servicing small engines. After years of visiting Moosehead Lake, they're part of a small influx of newcomers working to revitalize the town.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

Originally from Dover, New Hampshire, St. Laurent is just the sort of person the town has been trying to attract for years.

Greenville's population peaked in 1960 with more than 2000 residents, a number that has been dwindling ever since. Currently, the town and surrounding regions host about 1300 year round residents — but closer to 6000 in summer. After years of summer visits, St. Laurent and his wife decided to move to Greenville permanently.

"We like the lake, obviously,” St. Laurent says. “We like to boat, like the outdoors, like the fact that you can get anywhere in town in a couple of minutes. You're not sitting at traffic lights buried in traffic. When you talk about quality of life, Greenville should be the picture for it."

St. Laurent bought the local auto parts store, which also supplies needs for the owners of boats and recreational vehicles. In fact, he says he may soon outgrow the space as his inventory has increased by more than 80 percent.

And there are other signs that the town is on the way up.

“[That building] used to be the Black Frog. It was a restaurant. It closed down,” says St. Laurent. “And a couple from Maine bought it and they're working on reopening it. Redoing it and reopening it as a family restaurant."

As a side-by-side all terrain vehicle sails past covered in mud, St. Laurent says Greenville has also become a UTV destination, where visitors can take wilderness tours, and a number of businesses have begun catering for those hitting the trails.

"Yeah it's becoming real popular,” he says. “It's really done a lot for the economy."

Food trucks by the water add to the downtown revitalization efforts.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

The main street is lined with cars, most sporting out of state plates: Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania. A woman who wanted to be identified as Peggy from Sussex County, New Jersey says that she and her husband like the town's quiet, down-to-earth persona. She says she'd hate to see the place turn into "another Bar Harbor."

"No, we kind of like coming here and not having it be crazy touristy,” she says. “It's touristy enough. That's how I feel."

But the town — through volunteer economic development efforts — is actively working to attract more visitors, in the hopes that they will put down roots. The little public square by the lake has been spruced up. People can now tap into free public wifi, and there are plans to improve broadband access through the area. There's also a new cluster of little huts that host artisans demonstrating woodworking, basketry and other skills. There have been a number of cosmetic improvements as well. Gone are the beat up old oil drums that once served as trash cans. All these changes were recommendations by independent consultant Roger Brooks.

"This is a world class place,” says Brooks “Start looking like it!"

That's Brooks delivering a few hard truths to the town back in 2014. He was hired by the volunteer-run Moosehead Lake Economic Development Corporation to identify the area's strengths and weaknesses. Strengths included the lake and the wilderness surrounding the area. Weaknesses were unfriendly, bureaucratic signs, silo-thinking among town groups and stakeholders, a lack of visitor information and other, smaller things — surly handwritten notes telling customers "No credit cards" or forbidding them to use the bathroom.

"This you should never ever do! Ever! You're in a hospitality industry,” says Brooks. “Never say ‘no.’"

Margarita Contreni sits on the volunteer branding committee, which is working to ensure that the Moosehead Lake region lives up to the name "America's Crown Jewel."

"They were very, very honest about it,” she says.

Like St. Laurent, she's a relative newcomer to Greenville. While she was lured to the region as a tourist first, she says tourism, as crucial as it is, won't be the whole story.

"We want our population to grow,” says Contreni. “We want our school population to grow. There are about 216 students in the K through 12 right now. That is not sustainable in the long term."

Contreni says a 10 to 12 month, diversified economy is going to be needed, plus a population bump of about 25 percent. As part of that, the development committee will be studying this year whether a year-round, midsize hotel or inn might be feasible as a means of creating jobs- while serving more visitors.

"In addition to that, we are going to be doing a housing assessment as well, because we know that rental properties — we're talking about new employees and new people coming to the area — we know that rental properties are in short supply."

Renowned naturalist and writer, Henry David Thoreau, who hiked and paddled his way through the Maine woods, described Moosehead Lake as "a gleaming silver platter."
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

One major blow for the region's aspirations as a year-round destination is the lack of local ski facilities at Big Moose Mountain, as the resort is currently tied up in a dispute with the State of Maine. In 1995 the state sold the land to the resort developer at below market value, with the proviso that the resort would be developed and kept open for the benefit of the region. But persistent closures and a lack of maintenance led the state to file suit against the owner in 2016. The matter will likely be decided in court this year or next.

But there's some good news this year. The town's now-shuttered wood-to-energy plant — which left more than 20 employees jobless in 2011 — is reopening this year, but as an aquarium parts manufacturer.

"Up the road about a mile or so... there were mills there and just a lot more logging operations, and that's kind of gone away now,” says St. Laurent. “I mean we need something to pick up the economy where that's left a void."

St. Laurent says it can be hard for people to embrace change or to see different industries coming in. It's not the first time economic development changes have taken center stage in the Moosehead region. In 2005, local landowner and timber company Plum Creek, now Weyerhaeuser, announced its controversial vision for the area. It included a conference center, residential subdivisions and more — the largest development in the state's history. But the plan was vigorously challenged by some who feared that the area would be forever changed.

St. Laurent says he doesn't hear much about the old Plum Creek plans anymore. Rather, the conversation is now what the community is doing, and that, he says, has made a big difference.

"Over the last couple, three years now, that people are starting to see things happening, like with the artisan village, and the signage and some of the store fronts getting redone and stuff, I think people are starting to take a second look at it and say ‘You know what? These guys have their acts together. They're getting stuff done.’ So yeah, it's going good."