Magic City Through the Looking Glass, Part 5
The Walk-Through, continued
Thursday, July 02, 2015 5:14 AM
On Monday, East Millinocket voters turned out to say no (320-191) for the second time in four years to allowing a review process of a proposal to establish a national park and recreation area on 150,000 acres located on the East Branch of the Penobscot River next to Baxter State Park.
This Millinocket home on a corner lot on Snob Hill was for sale by the owner for $38,500 in March. It was still on the market in mid-June.
Last week, Medway also rejected the national park review.
Neither vote is binding, but as public opinion solidifies both for and against a proposed park - the dream-child of natural cosmetics entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby - East Millinocket and Millinocket residents continue to wrestle with deeper, fundamental questions of identity. Who are we, now that the magic age of the paper mills has ended? What will our future be?
Waiting for the timber industry to step in and provide jobs hasn't been a useful strategy for local residents in the past, but some East Millinocket residents who voted against the park proposal on Monday said they still hope industry jobs will come.
In Millinocket, though, an increasing number of residents think hope isn't enough.
Marsha Donahue, a rosy-faced woman with long white hair who is the owner of North Light Gallery in Millinocket, was running the Downtown Revitalization Committee meeting on a frigid weeknight in early March when I walked into the second-floor courtroom above the town hall and slid into a pew next to Jaime Renaud of the AT Lodge and the Appalachian Trail Cafe. I had met Jaime the previous year when she was planning the End of Trail festival and we had more than a nodding acquaintance: the food at the Appalachian Trail Cafe was really good and inexpensive, too, and the place was fun, with hiker's names scribbled on the ceiling and murals of different sections of the 2,200 miles of the trail in the stairwell leading to a little coffee shop and hiker's lounge on the second floor.
The courtroom held a fair-size crowd of 30 bundled in their winter coats.
Dan Reed (who ran the bakery/performance space on main street called Penobscot Hall — A Human Union) was in the back row center, the town manager Peggy Daigle (who planned to retire April 1) was in the back row corner, two city councilors sat prominently in the front row, and a handful of younger people in their twenties and thirties huddled in the middle. I recognized Ben Barr from the friends of the library group.
A young woman with purple tinted hair was saying something about putting up twinkly lights on the bandstand, the gazebo-like structure buried in snowdrifts across from my room at the AT Lodge.
"I know solar lights sounds like something new here, but they're not," she was saying. "They've been using them for years at Cinderella's Castle. They save bundles of money."
At first, I couldn't really focus on what she was saying because her appearance seemed so outrageous: large silver medallion earrings swung from her ears, matching a headband of silver medallions that she wore, Woodstock-style, across her forehead and which had slipped upwards, poofing her purple hair into an impromptu pompadour. Her lipstick matched her hair. She was very pretty and thin and athletic-looking, with ivory-colored riding pants tucked into furry boots. The courtroom, which seemed as straight as an old oak plank, could have been the set for one of those on-site, high-fashion, atmospheric photo shoots featured in Vogue where the model is in deeply saturated color and everything else is sepia-toned. She just needed a quick fix by her stylist.
Once again, I felt I had climbed through the looking glass and was now looking at the town aslant, from a different view, as if the town and its economic woes were a chess problem and the town itself were populated with extraordinary figures like the White Queen and the JubJub Bird. The feeling had a startling similarity to the onset of vertigo before the dizziness actually hits. Call it an enhanced sense of the strange.
I tugged on Jaime's sleeve.
"Who is this?" I whispered.
"Amy Collinsworth," Jaime whispered back. A home-town girl.
When I finally was able to pay attention, I realized that what Collinsworth was talking about seemed simply silly: solar-powered twinkly lights to decorate the bandstand - razzle-dazzle when pigeons occupied buildings on main street. The town manager had told me about an outline of a plan to demolish 500 buildings in Millinocket over the next ten years. Most of them were neglected old homes on postage-stamp lots, and the town strategy was to first try to give them to abutters with the understanding that they could only add on to their existing lot, not build a residence on it. They would also have to pay for demolition and pay to remove the debris to someplace other than here within one year.
The goal was to enhance the town's attractiveness by having larger yards and avoid a gap-tooted downtown that could result if removal wasn't strategic.
But Daigle had no expectation that all or even most home owners next to derelict properties would want to take on an abutting lot, so the cost to the town for removal of those 500 homes broke down to about $20,000 each: half for a summary court judgment to clear the legal ownership issues and half for demo. In the last weeks of her stint as town manager, she was going after a grant from the Eastern Maine Development Corporation to start funding the strategy.
Daigle's temperate practicality was a counterpoint to Collinsworth's earnestness, which was even more arresting than her appearance; so much so that what she was saying started to not seem silly at all. Shining through all that glam, she exuded the qualities of leadership that a town that seemed to have more than the regular share of nay-sayers seemed desperately to need. If this idea didn't fly, she looked like she would try another and another, until she found some that did.
If this was a chess game, it was as if Collinsworth had advanced a square and captured a rook and damn the dumpy houses and the pigeons in the belfry.
A most agile Red Queen, then, with an ability to focus attention, then redirect as necessary.
"It could be red white and blue, that kind of thing," Collinsworth was saying, but now she was talking about the Fourth of July and patriotic bunting, though I?wasn't sure if it was twinkly-light bunting or the more common draped kind. She gave some numbers about cost, then sat down.
Then talk turned to plans for a new "Welcome to Millinocket Business Community" sign to replace the drab one on the way into town. It would coordinate with blue-and-white banners that designated the business community on Penobscot Avenue, sending me into another flight of fancy about whether the pigeons occupying Millers store might somehow be marketed as a tourist attraction like the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill.
Charles Buki, the owner of an economic development firm near Washington, D.C., had offered economic analysis to the town for free after the plight of Millinocket had come to his attention in a New York Times article. After some initial resistance by the town council, they agreed to accept Buki's donation.
After sending up his team to talk to people last fall, do assessments and run some numbers, Buki concluded there was a limit to what he could do because the town had not yet faced their economic crisis.
The days of good jobs were over, as were the low taxes and the good roads and town infrastructure the mills had provided, he told them, and the town council was performing poorly. It needed to make unpopular decisions, think strategically, institute new taxes, new land use and building regulations, and form partnerships with other towns or organizations that could help.
"The days of being mad at the outside world and thinking it would want to come to Millinocket and invest are over," he said, in a letter to town leaders. "You will have to redefine your sense of self. You will need to rethink your relationship to the land and to outsiders.... In short, the world has changed in the last 50 years to a far greater degree than Maine has, and to an especially greater degree than the Katahdin Region has. The world has left Millinocket behind."
During a century of patronage, the mill had paid for roads and sewer lines and the town had never put anything away for a rainy day.
The bottom line, said Buki, is that Millinocket's unwillingness to close or consolidate schools, its reluctance to embrace its status as a gateway to the Katahdin Region, its distrust and negativity towards outsiders, and the other ways in which it has resisted adapting to a changing world have served the town poorly.Buki had tried to come up with an initial economic development plan for Millinocket, but finally came to the conclusion that he could not begin to design a technical fix for the town until the town itself decided it wanted to change and was willing to work for it.
"Millinocket will have to become willing to take risks, less financial than emotional, for sure, but risks all the same," he said.
The next time I tuned in to the conversation, a young woman named Cassandra Fournier was talking about what they would need to start a farmer's market and some of the products that might be sold there.
"Have you tried their lavender ice cream?" asked baker Dan. "It's this wonderful just amazing taste, like eating creamy perfume,"?he said.
There was an endless tea-party somewhere near, I was sure, with a Mad Hatter and a March Hare, twinkly lights and tea and jam tarts and perfumed ice cream. Modern art on the walls, jazz in the background, and peculiar creatures buzzing with enthusiastic ideas.
Who would have expected this a year ago when the No. 11, the last, massive paper-making machine at the Great Northern Paper mill, was sold at auction for an unspecified sum to an unnamed buyer who was rumored to be from China and then the whole mill proper came tumbling after under the weight of the wrecking ball?
Buki's economic analysis is hard to argue against - all those empty houses, that decaying infrastructure - but in a town where people sometimes looked gray with desperation, perhaps the Buki slap-in-the-face approach was simply impossible. Maybe the practicality of the ideas put forward mattered less than the enthusiasm and the willingness to work together on something, anything, as a gesture of community-mindedness. There was a new sense of volunteerism and boosterism afoot in Millinocket, even if the results were still modest, that I would not have predicted a year ago.
Later I looked online and found Amy Collinsworth's Facebook page, There Ain't No 'Mill' in Ocket, and the crowd- source-funding page Our Katahdin, which was started last winter by Sean DeWitt, who grew up in Millinocket and is now a director at the World Resource Institute. DeWitt specializes in economic development efforts on forest land in developing countries. Those efforts require input from all levels of society, including those who live in communities affected by economic upheaval, in DeWitt's experience.
His goal in getting three others on the board to start the non-profit, Our Katahdin, was to help build connections among residents in the region.
"We have found the most common ingredient for success to be the extent to which people are willing to pull together to make things happen," he wrote, about his reasons for starting the crowd-funding site.
When that happens, the chances of success increase dramatically, he said.
"We need to come together as a region, and we need to build stronger connections with people ... who have moved away for various reasons, but still love the region. There is so much that can be if we band together and begin to pool our ideas, money and time to make things happen."
By late June, the enthusiasm hadn't waned and the volunteer efforts had gained a following. Our Katahdin had raised $1,000 for the Welcome to the Millinocket Business Community sign and $5,000 for a regional community garden, too. And the donors were from both sides of the Yes-Park and No-Park divide.
Amy's Facebook page There Aint No 'Mill' in Ocket was the clearinghouse for rebuilding the Hillcrest playground, which was fully funded through donations to the Our Katahdin page at $5,000. By the first of July, the volunteer reconstruction was well under way. Meanwhile, another independent volunteer effort to put in a wide trail from Forest Street to launch a canoe in Millinocket Stream right in town was complete, with rock-banked sides and a straw-strewn path.
One of Charles Buki's rebukes last winter had been that the town lacked individual initiative and civic pride. Maybe that was the real value here: to prod and ponder possibilities that lay outside of defined limits and therefore leave some room to actually find common cause, no matter how twinkly. This was initiative. This was civic pride. Perhaps it wasn't the really hard choices that would make or break the town, but it was something.
But I was still troubled by the news that the Millinocket town library, which had been established 96 years ago when the town raised the sum of $2,500 and the Great Northern Paper Company donated $1,000, was set to close on July 1 if citizens could not raise over $20,000 to keep it open.
Libraries had, in a very real sense, given me access to the world and ways of thinking I would not have imagined left to Saturday morning cartoons and Archie comic books. From the time I was a little girl and waited anxiously for the weekly bookmobile in the small rural town where I lived, to later, when I lived and worked in a coastal fishing town, I made my way through Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and a bunch of the Brits. I saw Russia through the eyes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, thanks to the small, dusty library with dirty windows hidden behind a post office. And in all the small towns and large cities where I have worked, east and west, libraries had provided introduction to great travel and nature writers, from John McPhee to Thoreau, Gretel Erlich to Paul Theroux, and to regional literature by Faulkner and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
And that value didn't even begin to consider the digital era and the connection to the outside world afforded by it - all of that on offer, now, in any small-town library.
I simply couldn't imagine a town succeeding without one.
In March, Ben Barr, who had become head of the Friends of the Millinocket Memoirial Library and the head fundraiser almost by default (he hadn't even been a member of the group a year earlier) told me that the Friends had raised around $7,000 through book sales and bake sales.
It would take a lot of muffins to reach the $20,000 mark by July.
I called Barr up the last week in June.
There had been fund-raisers, bake sales, book sales, donated photos and art, a Rotary donation from Old Town, a friend of a friend through Facebook in San Diego who couldn't bear to see a library die and wrote a check. Barr had written small grants and gotten them.
All in all, this quiet, middle-aged mill worker, who foresaw the end of the era coming when he was laid off in 2003, had stepped somewhat reluctantly into the shoes of volunteer development director at a small library in a troubled town and he had pulled it off.
"We made it," he said.
Take that! Take that, you Jabberwock.
"We're going to stay open," said Barr.
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
"At least for another year," he said.
Saving the library was not a move that vanquished the King in this chess puzzle of a town. It was more like removing a Red Knight, perhaps, that horseback chess piece with its odd L-shaped moves. A good move, not a decisive one.
When I had come to town to look around two years ago, the quiet, despairing stage-set nature of the avenue perched between the derelict mill gates and the magic mountain made me almost claustrophobic. What would I do, if I lived here, I?wondered. I could take up knitting, I?could take flying lessons, I?could become an expert snowmobiler and cross-country skier. I would have time, probably, to finally learn French.
All of that was nonsense, of course, because I couldn't make a living in Millinocket unless I brought a job with me.
But somewhere along the way, I?had started to have hope for Millinocket, in spite of the town's tendency to cling to past glory and view the world through a small lens in tight focus. I?had worked in frontier towns in the Aleutian Islands and in the edge of Alaska and I had seen entrepreneurial drive in the most distressed circumstances in earthquake-riven Haiti. Pushed to the brink, some retreated and others thrived.
How the game would play out in Millinocket had yet to be determined, but I wasn't done looking. And with all this walking around town from bakery to library to town hall, the real walk-through of Millinocket's Tin Can Alley and Little Italy, the Flats and Snob Hill with realtor Dan Corcoran was still ahead.
Next week: The Walk-Through, Part 3