Magic City Through the Looking Glass, Part 7
Final Installment of The Walk Through
Thursday, July 16, 2015 5:17 AM
I was pondering the idea of Millinocket shedding its old identity as a company town and embracing a new identity as a frontier town at the foot of the Great North Woods, as realtor Dan Corcoran headed his Chevy truck back up Central Street to the North Woods Real Estate office.
The Appalachian Trail Cafe on Millinocket’s Penobscot Avenue is a popular stop for summer hikers coming to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Generally, the town has not focused on capturing tourist dollars. Some downtown merchants are trying to change that. (Photos by C. Parrish)
I had met enough people in Millinocket who felt the town was completely stuck - polarized between those who favored the proposed gift of a national park and those who opposed it - but I was starting to think that the ongoing argument over a national park was just a distraction. You couldn't go back to the days when the mills were thriving and the forestland was owned locally, instead of being owned by international investment companies. You couldn't go back to the days before the pulp and paper industry went global and Millinocket was no longer competitive. You couldn't pretend that the iPad and the Nook weren't taking the place of books and newspapers.
But, as Corcoran said, the forest and lakes and rivers and the mountain were still here, and they could still provide economic opportunity.
"So, Dan, if the forest products industry came back here, what would it look like? The mill is dead."
"It's not like we don't have anything to work with. We do," he said. "The logging industry is still here. Pelletier's logging and others doing logging in the area are very active. That hasn't changed. It's where they deliver the wood that has changed."
The Pelletier Brothers log 200,000 cords of wood a year out of the North Woods, primarily from two base camps, and maintain about 200 miles of logging roads to move logs out of the woods. The Discovery Channel show "American Loggers" has made them famous, but the extended family does much more than cut trees. They manufacture logging truck trailers, sell insurance to loggers and logging companies nationwide, and opened the family restaurant in town.
"There's a role for forest manufacturing here, whether its a pellet mill or something similar," he said. "It would be smaller."
"But how would you attract it?" I?asked. I had heard enough people say the region needed more manufacturing or another mill, but I?had yet to hear a real plan that didn't include investment companies and shaky tax breaks, with no solid jobs to go along with it.
"We're working on that," said Corcoran.
Corcoran is a board member of the Northern Forest Center, an organization based in New Hampshire whose main focus is to create economic opportunity and community vitality and innovation in towns and cities located in the northern forest belt across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and upstate New York.
"Wood pellet heat is pretty attractive for us here," he said. "The idea is, that if you buy oil, about 78 cents of every dollar leaves the region. But if you are buying pellets and you are buying them from a local distributor who buys them from a local pellet mill that buys them from a local logger who buys them from a local landowner, you get 100 percent of that money staying in the area."
"That is the kind of thing that benefits the community locally as that money circulates," he said.
One of the projects the Northern Forest Center has taken on is to broker partnerships and financing to create clusters of pellet users. The former mill town of Berlin, New Hampshire, now has the highest local concentration of wood pellet boiler users in the nation with the help of the Center, which assisted 40 homeowners, two apartment buildings and the Berlin center for the arts to switch to wood pellet heat. Based on the Center's own calculations, the town and its residents have saved $1.4 million in fuel costs since 2012, reduced carbon dioxide gas output by 1,886 tons, and kept $2.8 million circulating in the local economy that would have previously gone elsewhere.
A smaller conversion project in the Farmington area in western Maine has shown similar results.
"What the Northern Forest Center tries to do is to take something that has worked well in one community and apply it to others," said Corcoran. "One of the other areas they've had some real success is in establishing community forests."
Charles Buki, the economic development guy from the Washington, D.C., area who had donated his time to assess Millinocket, had mentioned something similar, but it hadn't really registered. How would the town owning a forest help anything?
"Municipal timber revenue," said Corcoran.
"So, the town would own forestland and manage it as working forest? Is that a worthwhile investment?"
"Absolutely," he said. "Look at Erroll, New Hampshire. The Center helped them buy 7,700 acres. They are generating $150,000 in timber revenue, plus recreational opportunities and nature education opportunities in a town of 250 people, and they feel like they are involved and they own something."
For their century of focus on the Great North Woods, the people of Millinocket had always been hired hands. With the millions of acres of forest land spilling out around them, none of it had belonged to them as a town. What would it be like for this town to own forest, manage it, make money from it, take pride in it? Because, surely, Millinocket knew forests, knew timber, knew forest management and forest pests, knew cords and board feet, and knew the forest land around them like many people know their own backyards.
"Could it work here?"
"You would have to look at acquiring several properties over time," he said. "You know Grand Lake Stream?"
I did. It's known for its fishing in spring and fall, but the village itself has a year-round population of just about 130 people.
With help from the Center, residents of Grand Lake Stream are working with partners to buy 22,000 acres destined to become community-owned forest that will be managed as working timberland.
"These are opportunities Millinocket can take advantage of, too," said Corcoran.
He had also been involved in local tourism discussions as a representative of the Center, including discussions with Lucas St. Clair, the son of Roxanne Quimby and the lead on the national park proposal.
"Lucas and I?had an interesting discussion about what would happen if the national park is developed. He is absolutely convinced there is going to be a development boom here. From what he has been able to learn from other communities where national parks have started, he is concerned that it needs to be planned and not just haphazard."
I had seen some of those towns myself. Ticky, tacky trinket stores and overpriced coffee and bad fried food and too many t-shirts and all full of tourists lumbering through and anxious drivers of mega-motorhomes trying to parallel park. The village at the entrance to Denali National Park in Alaska is one. Living there would be like being trapped in a carnival midway when the elephants decided to tromp through to the watering hole. I've had more fun in the Newark airport.
If you wanted a model of a likable town near a national park, I would pick Durango, Colorado, but that might be getting ahead of things a bit.
"Lucas thinks Millinocket needs to be thinking about planned development," said Corcoran.
So, I called up Lucas St. Clair and asked him: Was he concerned about unplanned development in Millinocket? And did he have any ideas about planning?
"We can't do a comprehensive economic development plan for Millinocket," he said, sounding frustrated. "It's their town. They need to do it. We can encourage them. We can't do it for them."
"More than any place, they should be fearful of outside development forces," he said. "If you had one million dollars, you could come in and buy that town. There is nothing to stop someone from coming in and taking it over."
I doubted Peter Hoffman would take it over.
Hoffman was one of several out-of-state investors who bought the Northern Plaza Shopping Center, which houses a Tractor Supply store, Just Right Price, a pizza place, a Dollar Store, and 30,000 square feet of empty retail space.
"Did they do any market research?" I asked Corcoran, who brokered the deal. "Or was it just because the price was right?"
Corcoran didn't know.
It took less than 30 seconds on the phone with Hoffman, a Massachusetts-based real estate investor, to find out they hadn't done any market research.
"It's been a rude awakening, if you really want to know," said Hoffman, of his search to find a tenant. He had been to LL Bean, and the big-box shops that consider doing smaller versions of their mega-stores, right on down to little retail stores that might consider a Millinocket location. It took each a few minutes to crunch the numbers and say the population, even during summer or the height of the snowmobile season, was not large enough. He had a spreadsheet of contacts: all solid 'No's.'
"The body count is the bare minimum. They know this stuff."
Hoffman said the Plaza had come to his attention when one of the New York partners, who has considerable retail investment experience, asked him if he wanted in and if he would oversee finding a tenant. Hoffman signed on and said, sure, he was willing to go up to the hinterlands to do the legwork.
"Are you moving up to Millinocket?" I asked.
I was a little offended, but not much. My first impression of Millinocket had been the same. I had known it was a unique town from the beginning, even if I wasn't sure it would survive the post-Great Northern Paper era. The truth was, in the process of poking and prodding at the town, as an outsider peeling away the layers, I had an evolving sense of Millinocket as a place where residents had staked a claim with hope for the future. That feeling was contagious.
But the impediments were real, too.
"So, it was a bargain?" I asked.
"The price had little to do with it. It's an investment."
They had paid $700,000 for the plaza. Maybe that was a bargain. I didn't know. It seemed like a lot of money to me.
Hoffman started eating and talking between slurps that sounded like he was eating Beef Szechuan out of box, shoveling away with chopsticks or maybe a plastic spork. He started talking faster and the slurping got louder and louder. I could almost hear spatters of Szechuan sauce hitting the phone.
"I can't remember ever struggling like this. At least not for a long time," Hoffman said. "I'm starting to think retail is not the right choice for this community."
Hoffman had met with the regional Chamber of Commerce and batted around ideas with state officials that foster economic development in Maine. So far, they had come up with the idea of looking for a tenant to open up either a marijuana growing facility or a call center. Hoffman was open to ideas, but couldn't see why the plaza would be a better location to grow pot than a half dozen others in the area.
I asked him if he knew that Millinocket was on the route of the 3-Ring Binder, a super-high-speed fiber-optic cable that had been installed in three big overlapping circles in Maine.
When the 3-Ring Binder had been completed in 2012, with federal stimulus money, Maine had just been hailed as being Number One in infrastructure measures by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That claim is still on the state website. But in 2014, Bloomberg News sent a reporter to check out Maine's Internet speeds and found them to be the worst in the country - in 49th or 50th place, with data speeds in the 3- to 5-megabytes-per-second range and some going up as high as 20 megabytes per second. If the fiber-optic cable were hooked up, Millinocket would be able to stream live high-definition teleconferences and download software at the same time at data speeds of 250 megabytes per second, according to resident Free Press IT guru Wendell Greer.
It was like an interstate that had been built with no on- or off-ramps; not exactly a road to nowhere, more like a rainbow that wasn't quite an illusion.
Those on- and off-ramps are expensive. There are efforts under way at the state level to secure public funds so municipalities can establish those digital on- and off-ramps, but for the moment much of Maine has slower Internet speeds than some third-world countries.
In Millinocket, the high-speed fiber-optic cable runs right through town to the high school and the medical center.
Hoffman didn't know about the 3-Ring Binder and didn't see much opportunity from the high-speed cable that runs right alongside the plaza property. He wasn't alone. Asking around town, I found few people I?had talked to knew the 3-ring Binder had been installed in town or what could be done with that kind of super-fast connectivity, uploading big digital files in a blink.
The limits of what those fiber-optic high speeds might offer rural Maine are based on the limits of the business-minded imagination in the tech-savvy 21st century and the investment they bring with them.
Of course, people would have to have some other reason to come to Millinocket. Once here, fiber-optic speeds could allow them to Skype with co-workers or employees in Manhattan or Hong Kong, or do stock trades in real time or do remote surgeries and design buildings or become a GIS whiz, or take over another country, probably.
Fiber-optic accessibility seems like a crucial piece of infrastructure for Millinocket. Unlike a lot of rural Maine towns located down windy, frost-heaved back roads, Millinocket has acess to wilderness literally out the front door - a kayak can be launched in town for a wilderness paddle on Millinocket Stream and snowmobile trails shoot out of town and up into the North Woods all the way to the Gaspé Peninsula - and access to an international airport out the back. The interstate, located eleven miles east, put Millinocket an hour and fifteen minutes from Bangor International Airport, which was built with a very long runway in case the Space Shuttle needed an alternate landing spot.
That, in itself, seemed a bit odd.
Millinocket has some key economic development elements, when you put the package together. Yeah, I thought, Lucas St. Clair was right. You could come in with a few million bucks and a baker's dozen of investors and buy this town and turn it into whatever you wanted it to be, but you couldn't do it without a really savvy idea of how to address its limitations and leverage its assets. If I were an investor, I would be looking and developing a strategy. If I were Millinocket, I would be doing some planning.
Hoffman circled back around to retail possibilities. It seemed so 20th century. I mean, even Walmart was losing ground to Amazon.
He had finished the Beef Szechuan and seemed reluctant to get off the phone.
"I don't give up. That's not what I?do."
"Got any ideas?" he asked. "We pay a finder's fee."
I thought about suggesting a Chinese restaurant, but there were already two, if you counted the food truck in East Millinocket.
I called him back three months later to see if he had found a tenant. He hadn't.
"Did you make a mistake, buying the plaza?" I asked.
"Did we make a mistake?" said Hoffman. He paused. No Szechuan-smacking interruptions this time. No hurry, either.
"Did we make a mistake?" he repeated. "Maybe."
Twenty-five years ago I was working as a field biologist at a wildlife refuge located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, not far from Cape Charles, Virginia, a small town that reminded me very much of Millinocket. Cape Charles, with its Victorian houses and town and soda fountain and old library, was bordered by wide farm fields. The town had a public beach right off the town center, with white-sugar sand and the calmer waters of the Chesapeake, compared to the Atlantic just a few miles away on the other side of the peninsula.
It was a company town. The railroad had built Cape Charles; laid it out, street by street, planned the town square and named the streets and ran a rail car ferry from the tip of the peninsula across to the mainland shore of Virginia twenty miles away. Until 1964, there was no bridge across the mouth of the Bay.
The local cement plant was the largest employer in the area.
When I went to Cape Charles on my days off from work, there was no one on the streets, though I?would pass old farmhouses along the way and more than once I saw the whole family of one house standing by the sunny wall of their faded frame house, out of the winter wind, standing there in their winter coats. Warmer against that sunny wall outside than they were inside, apparently. The librarian told me there had not been a new house built in the town since the 1950s. The town was on a long, slow slide to oblivion.
Until Brown and Root came to town, designed a huge development and marina and golf course that would entirely surround the town and essentially lock Cape Charles into the center of a private development. There was little in the way of municipal planning to stop them.
Brown and Root, an American construction company with Halliburton as a partner, was a major military-industrial global player. They had built dams, petrochemical plants, military bases in Vietnam, and been involved in human trafficking and bribing officials, and a whole lot more along the way.
In the end, Brown and Root dropped the Cape Charles development for reasons unrelated to local concerns. In the decades since, Cape Charles has added public and private marinas, a golf course, new buildings and a cultural center, put municipal planning into place, and initiated a full calender of events and festivals to attract visitors. A boatyard is now established in town to provide storage and service for yachts. Watermen still harvest oysters, and aquaculture facilities now grow them, too. Retirees had moved in, town leadership had evolved, and while the tension between the "born here's" and "come here's" continued, the town of about 1,000 people had made infrastructure investments that positioned it to keep growing, according to the mayor, George Proto.
"We still have problems," said Proto, a "come here" who successfully ran for mayor against a "from here." "We are in the second-poorest county in Virginia. The younger people move out. The county is struggling with how to provide decent medical services with a declining population and the schools are in need of help. Still, we just keep moving forward."
"I think the biggest resource is the people here who have a great deal of vision for the future and set the stage for it - writing grants and working with the county and the state to get things going."
The Brown and Root takeover attempt is how it used to happen. The modern takeover model is more of a partnership in the eyes of Elliot Bisnow, the 29-year-old co-founder of Bisnow Media, the largest real estate media business in North America. In 2008, Bisnow invited a handful of young, successful entrepreneurs on a Utah ski trip that evolved into a Summit Series, a company that hosts conferences that are part think-tank, part inspirational, and part networking for those who want to do good in the world and have the means to make things happen. Summit Series conferences have been described by WIRED magazine as part Burning Man, part TED Talk, and part Davos.
Things happen at Summit. One of them was the purchase of Powder Mountain ski resort in Utah. An unpretentious ski resort on 7,000 acres of prime skiing, the resort was likely destined for glitzy development until Bisnow was approached and asked if he would buy it. He crowdsourced like-minded entrepreneurs, most of them around 30 years old, worked with the town of Eden (population 600) to meet their ideas of how development that would affect them should proceed, and crowdsourced an architect; plans to build a new type of ski town are under way. The new development is zoned to be walker-friendly, eco-friendly, and local-food friendly, with minimal glitz. No cars allowed. No big mansions. Second-floor condos and shared office space are part of the plan, according to an April 10 story in The New York Times. But these won't be scruffy ski bums. The village will attract tech-savvy movers and do-gooders with deep, deep pockets. It will be the home of Summit Series. This will be a town full of people who know how to connect dollars with ideas, for profit and for social good.
"What Tesla did for cars, we're going to do for towns," Bisnow told a Summit Series audience, according to The New York Times.
I felt like calling him up and selling him on Millinocket.
Millinocket may not be Powder Mountain, but it's an iconic Maine town with its doors open to the North Woods, a main street still intact and waiting for bold ideas and redevelopment, and a growing number of people apparently willing to work for a 21st-century economy that takes advantage of all the assets the Great North Woods and the town's location have to offer.
But would I bet on the future by buying a house in Millinocket? Maybe. But, not yet.