For at least a generation, economic development in the great North Woods of Maine had to be one of two things – either revitalization of forestry and logging and the industrial mill jobs they supported, or creation of parks and tourist attractions that would provide the economic base of the future. It couldn’t be both, proponents of each side argued.

Parks and tourists, industrial supporters argued, would bring government and regulations that would stifle the logging industry and bar hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other traditionally easy access to and use of large tracts of forest land not owned by but available to local residents. Such is the belief embodied in our governor’s trip to Washington to try to reverse former President Obama’s designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Industrial forestry, the other side argued, was clearcutting our forests, damaging our streams, rivers, lakes and air and diminishing the region’s attractiveness to visitors. Besides, they said, paper and wood product mills were simply uncompetitive; they were closing left and right as investment capital moved to regions where trees grew faster, where modern factories could be built close to cutting sites and where labor was cheaper and more plentiful.

Face the facts, they argued: Industrial forestry is the old economy; tourism is the region’s best hope for the future; stop fighting the future and get on board with the best opportunity for preventing complete depopulation of the area.

It has been fascinating and more than a little ironic, in this setting, to watch the progress of Our Katahdin. The local nonprofit economic development organization, based in Millinocket, was founded in December 2014, largely by current and former residents of the Katahdin region, many of whom left years ago, achieved great success outside of Maine but remained committed to the well-being of their hometowns.

The group and its hundreds of volunteers dedicated themselves to the revitalization of their region. And, most importantly, they began with no predetermined agenda for what that revitalization would be. They brought local spirit acquired through their families of origin and management expertise acquired through their professional successes away from home. But they didn’t bring an ideology.

The group defines its region as the Katahdin Corridor – a 15-mile stretch along Route 157 from Medway at the Interstate 95 intersection, through Millinocket and up to Baxter State Park. This region encompasses, the group says, “a vast network of lakes, trail systems, day-hikes and 4-season recreational opportunities.”

But, its promotional material declares, the Katahdin Corridor is also “home to over a million square feet of recently vacated industrial buildings and thousands of acres of land ready for development” – land, it notes, that “sits astride the Three-Ring-Binder fiber-optic internet line” and has access to 156 megawatts of hydroelectric and biomass electric power.

This hardly sounds like an either-or kind of group.

Sharing their ideas and accumulating those of hundreds of interested partners through both local meetings and deft use of social media, Our Katahdin raised over $100,000 through crowdfunding and selling Katahdin Revitalization Bonds available to everyone in denominations as small as $100. Since its origin, the group has initiated 21 projects, applied for and received a variety of state and federal grants and acquired a historic former retail building in downtown Millinocket.

Most significantly, however, as of January, Our Katahdin has acquired all of the assets and liabilities of the former Great Northern Paper Mill in Millinocket. This includes the 1,400-acre former mill site, land adjacent to the Millinocket airport, several other sites, tax liabilities to the Internal Revenue Service and to the town of Millinocket and rights to operate a federal program that can authorize foreign investments in the area.

Rather than trying to find a single large industrial user for this former pillar of the northern Maine economy, Our Katahdin is working with the University of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy and Maine Accelerates Growth to bring groups of researchers and entrepreneurs to the site to build a bio-industrial park designed to explore and develop ways to turn renewable natural resources into valuable products to serve world markets.

Such lofty goals are certainly laudable, audacious even. But several factors stand out as beacons of best practice for economic development efforts all across Maine.

 First and foremost, the effort does not start as an either-or challenge; all ideas are welcome. This is both a way to get more ideas and a way to avoid getting bogged down in internal disputes that have derailed so many development efforts in the past.

 Second, success of the effort does not rest solely on attracting unknown investors. It starts with local people committed to their home region who have succeeded away from home but remain committed to home.

 Third, the effort is based not on any existing business but on entrepreneurship, on the idea that bright, committed people working together can find ways to make a business succeed where they want to live.

We would all do well to keep our eyes on the Katahdin Corridor for signs of Maine’s future economic prosperity.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]