Magic City Through the Looking Glass, Part 4 Additional
Thursday, June 25, 2015 8:02 AM
On June 29, the residents of East Millinocket (population 1,688; 19 percent of whom live in poverty) will vote on whether they want to accept a $100 million gift.
One town east, Medway (population 1,496) voted to reject it, 252-102, on Tuesday.
To be sure, not everyone thinks of the proposal - for a 150,000-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park and Recreation Area that comes with a $40 million endowment to help maintain it over the long term - as a gift.
Millinocket, the largest town of the three in the Katahdin region (population 4,401) is likely to be the most affected if a new national park is established. Millinocket would become the gateway community to a new park, as it is now the gateway to Baxter State Park - a strategic location that the former mill town never bothered to capitalize on during its boom years and still hasn't.
And it's kind of odd that Millinocket has never taken advantage of all that traffic headed to Baxter State Park, especially since Baxter is so busy in the summer that they turn people away at the gate and hikers come out late from climbing Katahdin with nowhere to get supper, unless they get a slice of pizza or a cold sandwich at the gas station on the way out of town. This year, many of the hikers are from Quebec.
Surely, they want a Millinocket moose burger or something before they leave town.
But no. Downtown Millinocket is empty, or nearly so. Last year, most of the massive paper mill complex in town was torn down after Cate Street Capital, the latest set of investors with nice haircuts and shiny shoes, promised to provide jobs and laid off hundreds of workers instead, and then went bankrupt.
Cate Street, which had paid one dollar for both the Millinocket and East Millinocket mills, didn't even scuff their shoes on the way out; instead, they managed to skillfully manipulate a new state law - the New Market Capital Investment Program - in a one-day loan scheme that boosted their value just long enough for them to qualify for $16 million in tax credits. Maine taxpayers are still on the hook for that.
Even odder than the shiny-shoe shamsters is the fact that the Maine Legislature voted down an attempt to close the one-day-loan loophole in the New Market program this week on the same day Medway was giving the park proposal the heave-ho, leaving the mixed impression that we invite you in to rip off Maine taxpayers if you're a corporation promising jobs, but we don't want your lousy $100 million if you are an environmentalist who wants to donate land that could lead to potential economic development.
In spite of being taken advantage of more than once - Cate Street was just the latest in a list of opportunists and likely won't be the last - and in spite of the fact that it looked like no large industry was likely to ever come again to Millinocket, the idea of switching to a tourist-based economy just left a nasty taste in the mouths of some townspeople.
In March, the town council of Millinocket voted against asking citizens whether they wanted to consider the national park proposal in a town-wide vote. The vote would have been non-binding, like those in Medway and East Millinocket, but it could have been a powerful statement to send to the federal government on whether a new national park was wanted by local inhabitants or not.
Pretty hard to turn down a $100 million gift, I thought, when there were no other ideas coming from either inside or outside the region. I?wasn't sure the power of 'No' was a logical stance when you could probably throw a dart and hit a foreclosed house in Millinocket, either. There were 60 foreclosed property notices on the town list, and that was on top of 40 or so last year. Current trends indicated there would be a new empty house in town every two weeks for the next 15 years.
There were cars at the area churches on a Sunday, but if the number of trucks parked outside the Elks Club at any time of day were an indication, a lot were drinking cheap booze, too.
You could hate the park idea - maybe it was a barmy idea, I?didn't know - but it was hard to ignore that this was a town on the skids. Not that a proposed park would help those on the brink, but still, why wouldn't you take a good hard look at any idea that had potential for economic progress?
It was right around that time - in March - that I started to notice something unusual that had nothing to do with either a national park or a paper mill.
Real estate was starting to sell in Millinocket. Not a lot, but some, including one good-sized commercial property. And it was selling during one of the longest, coldest winters anyone could remember.
The walk-through is the last part of the real estate transaction before the buyer puts down a signature and money changes hands. It's the final check to see if anything has been missed before a new owner takes possession.
By then, a careful buyer has done due diligence, hiring someone to check out the roof and the furnace, to see if the electrical system is wonky, to poke around in the dark corners with a screwdriver for dry rot before coming up with a prioritized list of what needs to be fixed and how much it will cost. By then, the buyer has stood at the curb, looked at the house and considered: Could I live here?
Given its hardships, what would motivate someone to buy real estate in Millinocket, I?wondered. And what would they get for their money?
I packed up the car, threw in my laptop and an old down coat with a hood in case I was standing around in unheated buildings that were for sale, and headed three hours up the interstate.
On I-95 north of Bangor, the wind blasted snow sideways across frozen peat bogs in blinding squalls. Flashing yellow lights on ominous caution signs warned against moose running into the interstate where cars are outnumbered by tractor-trailers. There were few vehicles of any kind, though, and for a half hour I sped up the interstate towards the Medway exit alone, watching for moose. It could have been January, it was so cold, not the first week in March.
I turned off the interstate and headed the eleven miles west to Millinocket, crossing the frozen East Branch of the Penobscot River just as the sky faded to pink. A trick angle of the light pasted Mount Katahdin in the fading sky and magnified it so that it loomed above the highway. Every time I?had driven up to the Millinocket area during the past two years when I?had started reporting on the Katahdin region, I was struck by this sense that I was entering a territory that was much farther north and more remote than it actually is, a place almost Arctic and elemental; heavily logged over the centuries, true, and shaped with a heavy hand, but still untamed.
At the entrance to the north woods, Millinocket had been built as a timber version of Detroit, on a small scale: brash, successful, the mill built the town and dominated it and the whole north woods around it for a century. Its fall has been as dramatic as its rise, and just as symbolic of changes now at work in the nation and across the globe as we rocket into an as-yet-unnamed future on the other side of the digital divide.
The fall of Millinocket and the surrounding towns in the Katahdin region wasn't just about shiny shamsters and bad choices or, as some believe, a plot by environmentalists to turn the whole north half of the state into a park where logging and snowmobiling is banned. In part, it is the result of global economic forces - some as straightforward as the fact that fewer and fewer people read newspapers like the one you are holding in your hands.
The fall is deeply personal, too. The population is too small, the woods too big, the big mountain too domineering, the town's working-class, manufacturing history of solid union-wage jobs held too close to the chest for it not to be.
Millinocket, like the other two towns, had become polarized and static, trying to figure out how to govern itself now that the mill was gone. There seemed to be little sense of urgency, even as the towns were falling down.
Before reaching downtown, I pulled into the newly purchased Northern Plaza Shopping Center with its Tractor Supply and Just Right Price and the 30,000 square feet of empty retail space that had just sold for an unspecified sum to three out-of-state investors.
It didn't look too promising. There were five cars parked in front of Save-A-Lot.
Inside, the store had a random assortment of industrial-sized cans of salsa and battered bananas, apples waxed to a high gloss, Crisco by the bucket and cheap wine by the box, and cereals with names I didn't recognize. I bought a jar of generic spaghetti sauce, some milk, an onion, a box of spaghetti, and three hard pears.
A young man rang up my purchases, pushing the items to the end of the counter in a forlorn heap. When I asked for a bag, he said bags cost a nickel. I didn't expect that. In relatively affluent and progressive-leaning cities like Ashland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine, post-recycling conservation measures had taken hold, but Millinocket seemed to have more pressing concerns.
"That's how you save a lot," the clerk said, clarifying the reason. I almost asked how much he made an hour. Seven-fifty? Eight bucks? Twenty-five years ago he could have walked up the hill from Stearn's High School in Millinocket and pulled in twice that, almost from the start. What did he think about that?
Instead, I restrained my curiosity, gathered my groceries and stuffed them in a piece of an empty box that had been slashed and discarded by a grocery stocker. In the entryway, I was glad I hadn't asked. A handwritten notice scribbled on a half a page of blue-lined paper and ripped out of a spiral notebook was thumb-tacked to the bulletin board.
For Sale: 3 Story, 3 Bedroom, 1-1/2 baths, 2 porches, 2 sheds, fenced-in backyard. Oil heat and wood pellet heat. All appliances, partially furnished. Close to school and downtown. $59,000.
I wondered if they could get that much.Back on Central Street, I rolled down the long hill to the stop light and turned on to Penobscot Avenue, Millinocket's main street.
It had been six months since I had been in town for the Trail's End festival in September, when the avenue had been filled with hikers and hiking enthusiasts who had come from all over the Northeast. The restaurants and bars had been full, with people spilling out on the sidewalks and cars up and down the avenue.
Now, the first three blocks of Penobscot Avenue were dark. The antique-gas-lamp-style street lights, which must have been installed in better times, only served to illuminate the emptiness of the avenue with its handful of cars and trucks parked at the end in front of Pelletier Loggers restaurant and bar, which had half a logging truck mounted on the second story like a trophy moose.
I had the private room at the end of the hall on the second floor of the Appalachian Trail Lodge, with a double bed and a bay window overlooking the village green, whose ample spruce trees, park benches, and gazebo where now buried beneath the snow. The third-floor bunk rooms were closed off, and the three other bedrooms on the second floor that shared the bathroom were all empty. I was the only lodger and, at $25 a night, the going rate, it seemed like Paul and Jaime Renaud, the owners, were doing me a favor.
"That's the rate," said Paul. "Take any room you want." I gathered an extra quilt and made a cup of tea in the cold kitchen with its out-of-season notices to hikers to not use their camp-stoves inside, and huddled down in bed, the curtains drawn against the street lights.
I?turned off the lamp. The night pulled in close. An occasional truck came up Penobscot Avenue, its tires crunching the ice, the sound echoing off the empty buildings. Men walked by below the window, talking loudly, the ice crunching rhythmically with each step, their voices so rough I could smell cigarettes and cheap beer. There was silence for a time, and then the high whine of snowmobiles coming closer and closer still, coming across the village green, so close they sounded like a cross between a Shop-Vac and a hair dryer, winding down as they pulled up to the Pelletiers' bar.
The town manager had told me about the snowmobile trail that had been built into the downtown to connect Millinocket to the trail that goes on up through the proposed national recreation area to the east of the East Branch and can be followed all the way up to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Businesses had chipped in, volunteers had mustered to build it. Now, one of the derelict foreclosed houses that was located next to the snowmobile trail on the other side of the green was headed for demolition to become an in-town parking lot for snowmobile-trailers.
At midnight, I woke to the incessant beep, beep, beep of a backing truck and the scraping of a snow plow, even though it wasn't snowing. It seemed to go on for hours, though it might have only been twenty minutes. I finally got up and pulled the curtain aside to see. It wasn't only a snow plow battering away the ice and probably the pavement, too. A front end loader jerked back and forth, though the town paying workers to chip ice off roads in the middle of the night when the roads were barely used during the day didn't make much sense.
I crawled back beneath the quilts. In the middle of the night, I woke to blue lights flashing and someone banging on the downstairs door, asking Jaime to move her car off the street or they would tow it. The beeping and motorized chipping continued. Now and again, another truck went by - going where? Where was there to go? For an almost deserted town, it sure was noisy. Maybe the silence of the Great Northern Paper mill was too much silence for Millinocket, a town used to a century of clanking and log truck traffic, day and night, belching machinery and grinding wheels, the mill as busy as a hive of paper wasps night and day. Maybe this was their way of filling the silence, tires crunchy on the ice, trucks driving up Penobscot Avenue, down Katahdin Avenue, looking to see if somehow the mill had come back, the same way people habitually check their smartphones to see if someone is texting or emailing, to see if they are plugged in, to affirm their relevance.
Two movies had been filmed in Millinocket a couple years earlier and I?had the chance to speak with Lance Edmands, the director of "Bluebird," about why he had chosen Millinocket to film his wrenching story of a middle-aged school bus driver who is distracted during her final walk-through of the school bus at the end of a February day and doesn't see a boy sleeping there, only to find him still alive, but only just, the next morning. As the story develops, it doesn't so much unfold as fold in, so that Leslie, the bus driver, gets so she can barely speak. All the characters seemed increasingly alienated from each other, seeking human connection in often damaging ways and hoping for some kind of deliverance. The lives of the bus driver, her husband, their daughter, the frozen boy and his addict mother all change as a result, but the change is small and full of bad choices along the way. There is no resolution to the story, just a last grace point of hope.
Edmands said he had chosen the area because it was beautiful, of course, but that there was also something less benign that had attracted him.
Edmands had come back for a week at a time over the course of almost three years to write the script. Then he was on-site for three months in winter, doing much of the filming in February.
"There was something scary about it, something kind of terrifying," said Edmands, of Millinocket. He was trying to capture the feeling of being trapped in a place, to explore that, and the boy forgotten on the bus fit. The setting fit.
"The isolation, the physical isolation, being far away, but also isolation from others, from your family and having to break through that isolation is sort of what the film is about," he said. Edmands told me he hoped his "Bluebird" film captured that life doesn't necessarily give you happy endings, or horrible tragedies, either.
"A lot of the times it is just that there is stuff that you've got to keep working at. The solutions aren't easy," he said. "This isn't a story where everything works out great. This is what people's lives are like. We get better slowly and it takes months and years to understand how to talk to somebody.... I was trying to portray a very small baby step towards change."
"I have hope for them," he said, of the characters he had created in his story. "I think we all should. At the same time, you have to know change is going to be slow."
When I woke, the early morning was so bright reflecting off the snow it hurt my eyes when I pulled the curtains back, and so quiet that the chickadees calling in the big spruce in the middle of the village green sounded operatic. They sounded optimistic, too, flitting in and out between the snow-draped boughs of the postcard-perfect spruce in the pure, cold light. I drank a cup of coffee, put on my winter boots and heavy coat, made an appointment with Dan Corcoran at North Woods Real Estate to go for a walk-through of residential and commercial properties and went out to see what changes for the good Millinocket had managed.
In spite of the nocturnal thumping of big equipment, Millinocket's main street hadn't improved. Big salty puddles had formed over blocked storm drains, congealing into icy slush that would likely freeze into sheets of corrugated ice.
I walked all the way to the far corner of the avenue, about a quarter of a mile, passing the barber who was leaning on a window sill looking out. He waved. I?came back up the other side of the avenue, passing the wreck of Miller's department store, which was full of pigeons that had been roosting there for so long that they could probably claim squatters' rights. The old glass sign was broken, a socket dangling.
A young girl of about 13 was standing on a mound of snow at the corner of a cross street. She looked at me when I said hello, not answering, then looked down and away. If other kids had been around I would have said she was the Queen of the Hill. She seemed to be waiting. I?looked up and down the avenue and the cross streets. There were no people. There were no cars, and I couldn't help but think about "Bluebird" and another film shot in Millinocket, "Child of Grace," where young women weren't queens, but pawns with too few choices.
The bakery was open and I went in. I?could smell fresh oat bread and buttery cookies, but at first all I?saw was a vast colorful room filled with modern art and a performance space with sixty empty chairs. Then I noticed a lonely wood-and-glass bakery counter tucked in the back that looked like it would be more comfortable as a food cart on a street corner.
Dan Reed, the baker, greeted me with caffeinated enthusiasm. With his long white-and-gray beard and short cropped hair, he seemed monkish, in spite of his chef's togs and black-and-white checked baker's toque, but with his astonished blue eyes and curiosity he seemed more like a charming Mad Hatter of Millinocket.
Reed had long owned a camp on Quakish Lake, where he had lived seasonally. Recently, he moved up to be a year-round resident. He opened the bakery a few months earlier.
While he patted his apron and jacket pockets in search of change for the five dollar bill I offered to pay for an apple tart, I noticed a book lying open behind the counter that I had at first thought was recipes. I couldn't read it upside down, but it looked more like a book of Medieval runes or something similarly counter-cultural. Was that patchouli I smelled? I looked in the bakery case for brownies, wondering.
A woman and her young daughter stopped in to buy a chocolate chip cookie and the artist whose work hung on the walls came in to work out a date to switch out some paintings. Another woman popped in to see if Reed would buy an advertisement for an upcoming school competition. He would, he could, here was the cookie, how much was the ad, how much was the cookie, the woman wanted to know as the little girl held it in her hand, looking up at the baker.
The cookie? Oh, fifty cents, that will do fine, thank you very much.
None of the others bought anything. I felt a bit bad about that, and bought a macaroon and a loaf of oat bread, sending Reed back into pocket-patting for change.
Reed had 65 people show up at a fundraiser to hear music and poetry on Robert Burns' birthday in February and was planning another fundraiser for the high school musicians with a group of downtowners who had formed the Millinocket Downtown Revitalization committee. Jaime Renaud, who also owned the Appalachian Trail Cafe in addition to the hikers hostel where I?was staying, had teamed up with Reed to serve soup for the fundraiser.
Ben Barr, a polite and soft-spoken man who appeared to be suffering from allergies in spite of every potential mold spore and pollen grain being frozen in suspension since last October, came into the bakery to chat, where a small crowd of people were exchanging ideas in an impromptu meeting. No one was buying anything and Reed wasn't selling anything, not even coffee, although the very air seemed to be buzzing.
Barr was head of the Friends of the Millinocket Library, a group that had formed the previous year to try to raise enough donations to keep the library, which had been open for a hundred years in July, from closing.
The library needed to raise $23,000 by July 1 to keep the lights on and the heat working. Public libraries have to be open at least 12 hours a week to be recognized by the state.
"We are getting close to not being able to do that," said Barr.
Maybe he wasn't allergic to cats, after all. A library closing after a century felt like a cause for grief.
"Come to the Revitalization Committee meeting tonight, if you really want to know what we are doing to help downtown," he said.
Well, that was part of the walk-through, wasn't it? And that was what I had, in fact, been up to since I first started coming to report on the global and local forces pulling at Millinocket - trying to flesh out that emotional snapshot and get a sense of the place.
A diligent real estate buyer would do more than poke around in the cellar, they might knock on the neighbors' doors, ask about the school, and check out the neighborhood for barky dogs and meth labs. A patient buyer might endure a town council meeting to see if local officials cooperate (I had, they don't) and how they spend the town dollars. They would eat at a local diner and lend an ear to town gossip, strike up a conversation with the bartender at the local pub - all before the final walk-through. I couldn't meet with realtor Dan Corcoran until the following day, anyway, and I was curious. If local citizens had decided to try to revitalize the avenue, what could they be up to?
"Sure," I said. "Why not?"
Next week: The Walk-Through, Part Two