PATTEN — Think about the hub of the Katahdin region and Millinocket probably comes to mind. The down-on-its-luck, former paper mill town and its neighbor, East Millinocket, are ground zero for the debate over how to reinvent the economy, the role of tourism and the pros and cons of a national park.

But the focus on Millinocket overlooks Patten, 40 miles to the northeast.

This small community in the rolling hills on the line between Penobscot and Aroostook counties has a lot to gain from an expanded Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area. Its broad Main Street straddles Route 11, the main drag leading to the northern entrance of Baxter State Park.

Relatively few visitors to Baxter use the north entrance now, but if Katahdin Woods & Waters becomes a national park, Patten and its tiny neighbor, Sherman, will become the major gateway from Interstate 95. Millinocket won’t, largely due to the lack of paved roads from the south and west.

With or without a national park, the prospect of mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and other visitors discovering the new recreation area is welcomed by many in Patten’s business community.

“At this point, anything would be great,” said Jon Ellis, co-owner Ellis Family Market. “There’s no industry left. We rely tremendously on tourism year-round. It’s what’s going to pay the bills, if we’re going to survive as a community.”

Ellis Family Market is the biggest grocery store between Houlton and Millinocket. It’s part of a compact service center that includes a bank, drug store, hardware store and lumber yard.

These and other essentials are a blessing for area residents. Just as important, they help support a seasonal migration that underpins the town’s economy. As the snow melts, fishermen arrive. Summer brings lakefront camp owners. October and November are for deer hunters. Pickup trucks pulling sleds will make tracks in the first snow.

Now, as warm days fade, bear hunters are passing through town. It’s highly unusual for a pharmacy to have a full-sized model of a black bear standing at the entrance, along with bear T-shirts and travel mugs, but there’s one here at Patten Drug Co. Bear season is a big deal in Patten, says the pharmacy’s owner, Joel Fitzpatrick.

Hunters who forgot a rain jacket, sleeping bag, propane lantern or cooler have a last chance at Richardson’s Hardware. They may be assisted by workers wearing maroon T-shirts that read: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Nate Richardson is a fourth-generation owner who moved back to town from southern Maine. Like Ellis, he supports efforts to promote the area’s recreation potential, as long as land is set aside for traditional uses.

“I think it would be positive for all of us,” he said. “More people would come through our town and see what we have to offer.”

The road to Baxter’s north entrance rolls over farm fields and woods. It’s possible to pass a horse-drawn carriage driven by young boys, members of the area’s Amish settlement centered in nearby Smyrna.

The last utility pole and full-time electricity is available at Shin Pond Village, a lodge and collection of cabins scattered on a crest above Upper and Lower Shin Pond.

Terry and Craig Hill have welcomed visitors there for three decades. Last year, Terry Hill drove around the Loop Road in the Katahdin Woods land, stopped at the new look-out points and considered the potential. Solitude. A remote, North Woods experience. She could see all that. But she wondered how many people would come to a national park, or any new park, without a dominant natural feature.

“In Baxter, Mount Katahdin is the wow factor,” she said. “Where is the wow factor there?”

The Hills want to retire soon and pass the resort on to a next generation. To thrive, Shin Pond Village will need to look beyond the snowmobilers and summer family vacationers who make up a lot of the current business. Lately, the Hills have been promoting the resort as a wedding destination. They had four events this summer.

A new owner could take advantage of the Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area, Terry Hill said, by giving guided trips into the park for cross-country skiers, mountain bikers and river paddlers.

That would build on recent efforts to bring people to the park and offer them a place to stay.

What’s the biggest single thing that would boost business in the Patten area?

“There’s no easy answer,” Hill said. “We need local people to work together. Some people say, ‘We need mill jobs, we need mill jobs.’ But that’s not the reality of the situation.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]

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