Congress has recessed for the summer and hundreds of lawmakers have fled the beltway to reconnect with constituents in their home states. Today Independent Sen. Angus King was in the Millinocket area, which has been economically ravaged by the loss of two paper mills, but is hoping for a rebirth. The region’s fate may depend on decisions that come directly from Washington.
Walking with the aid of a hand-held floodlight through the darkened interior of a cavernous building that once housed paper-making machines for Great Northern Paper, Sen. Angus King is trying to see the future. The gargantuan paper mills that once employed hundreds of residents are not likely to return here to Millinocket, but a new generation of entrepreneurs such as Mike Seile would like King to know that the GNP complex has potential.
“There are alternative potential uses, whether it’s pellet manufacturing, bio-diesel, those are all options for this building – depending on the scale,” Seile said.
Here in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, policy decisions from the Trump administration could affect Millinocket in a very direct way. Later this month, a decision will be made by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke who will determine whether the nearby 87,000 acres of forestland designated as a national monument by the Obama administration will keep that status.
In addition, new tariffs on Canadian spruce and fir coming into Maine could also have an impact on the development of forest products industries at the former mill site. Both issues are front and center for Mike Seile, the vice-president of “Our Katahdin,” an organization that supports redeveloping the former Great Northern Paper mill site into a world-class bio-industrial park.
“I think a lot of discussions in the past have been one or the other – forestry or tourism – and our position on that is, ‘why not both?’,” Seile says. “We believe it can co-exist and we can still have a vibrant forest-based economy here at the bread basket at the end of the Golden Road.”
King says the region would do well to diversify its economic drivers.
“All the elements are here and it’s really a question of Mike and the folks from Our Katahdin putting those pieces together,” says King. “And I think they’re following a smart strategy of not looking for one big home run.”
And while it's empty and lifeless now, King says the former GNP facility has enormous potential.
“We’re turning a page,” King says. “This is an enormously valuable site for a number of uses. It has a rail line. It has water. It has electricity from Brookfield which is on-site and it even has the 'three-ring binder' highest speed internet in the country running right to this site.”
And while Washington may have a big influence on issues that affect the region, some locals believe that the Katahdin region has the power to revitalize itself.
Peggy Daigle, one of the area residents accompanying King on his tour, is a former town manager. She believes home-grown marketing efforts to attract tourism, business and jobs to the region will have more positive impact than some government initiative.
“You’d be surprised at how much the little voice has for an impact,” says Daigle. “The further up you go in state government and in federal government, you get less and less comments, less and less input from the general public – whereas, down on the local level you get it all the time. So I would say that a grass roots effort to get something to happen in this area probably stands a better chance than the average opportunity.”
After completing his tour of the Millinocket area, King traveled on to Lincoln for an economic development forum.
This story was originally published Aug. 8, 2017 at 4:41 p.m. ET.