October 1, 2012

Off the Trail: Strong views in small, struggling town

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Another in a weekly series on what Mainers across the state say about the race for the White House – and what they want from the next president.

click image to enlarge

Painter Marsha Donahue operates North Light Gallery in downtown Millinocket. She plans to vote for President Obama, partly to qualify for insurance under Obama’s health care law.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

MILLINOCKET - There's a verse in the Bruce Springsteen song "My Hometown" that could have been written about Millinocket:

"Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores

Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more

They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks

Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back to your hometown."

Few Maine towns have been hit harder by job losses than Millinocket and its sister community East Millinocket. Not one, but two mills have closed in the past four years, though one is back operating on a limited scale. Before the mill in East Millinocket reopened last year with a work force of 215, unemployment was more than 20 percent in the Katahdin region.

Locals laugh that the town was saved by soft porn. The mill made national news last week for producing 5,000 tons of paper this summer that Random House used to publish the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series of erotic novels. There's talk of the other mill coming back if things fall into place.

Greg Friel isn't holding his breath. "It's not coming back," said Friel, a 50-year-old school teacher who was born and raised here, and hopes to stay here to raise his children, 8 and 11.

The mills provided a good life for a lot of people for many years. The jobs kept people in their homes, which boosted tax revenues and helped pay Friel's teaching salary.

But those days are over. More than 400 homes are vacant, dropping property values for those that remain occupied. The median household income is about $10,000 below the state average.

Up here in the Maine woods, the presidential election is about the dignity of the working class.

This town may be down, Friel said. But it is not out. Pride runs deep.

Friel voted for John McCain in 2008, and is leaning toward Barack Obama in November. The president, he said, has done nothing to deserve being booted from office. More important, Friel believes that Obama better understands the struggles of this town and the people who live here, and his policies offer the best hope for Millinocket's comeback.

"Romney is more for the big-business guys," said Friel.

He used to think he did pretty well for himself, and considered himself firmly middle class -- until Romney told him that the middle-class is defined by a household income starting at $200,000.

"I guess I am now living in poverty," he said.

Friel also works as a Registered Maine Guide. He takes folks fly-fishing on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Increasingly, people hire Friel to lead hikes through Baxter State Park so they can photograph wildlife.

"A lot of times we take for granted what we have up here," he said over after-dinner coffee at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. "People from away cherish what we have up here."

Tourism and the services that support tourism represent the best hope for Millinocket going forward, he said, noting that the cafe where he was having coffee caters to hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

The future of this town, he said, are places like this cafe, and not the mill.

Marsha Donahue is part of that future. A Pittsfield native, she moved to Millinocket from Portland seven years ago with her husband. They wanted to live in a rural community, and opened the North Light Gallery in the heart of downtown because they believed in Millinocket.

(Continued on page 2)

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