For those of you who read this blog regularly, you know that I look at life through a fairly positive lens. I tend to look at every situation with hope, probably because I have encountered multiple seasons in my personal life that seemed entirely bleak and hopeless, only to be met with overwhelming grace and the undeserving gift of yet another chance. How many times the very thing I thought would “do me in” somehow turned around and worked out for my betterment. Some folks would say it has a lot to do with the power of positive thinking and confident confession, and I do believe there is a truth to that. For me, it has been all about faith. Now, I promise not to get all religious on you; that’s not exactly where I want to go with this. What I mean is, rather than looking at all that is wrong in the world, I choose to draw from my faith that it will get better. I cannot control everything and everyone around me, but I can dig my heals in deep where I am standing and be the change I want to see. One situation, one relationship, one opportunity at a time. I focus on that. I push back on negative perspectives, and rather than conforming to them, I do everything I can to transform them; to find some new way of doing it, saying it, and living it. If we are not making a difference in this world, then really, what’s the point? Don’t you want to make a mark? Leave a legacy? I do.
When I began my role as Director of the Piscataquis Chamber over two years ago, I knew there was only one direction we could go, and that was forward. Since that time, there have seen some very significant changes in this county which have taken us in that direction. I would not hesitate to say that 2015 has been the best year for Piscataquis County in many years, perhaps decades, and I am beyond excited about where were will go from here. But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
Piscataquis County is huge. Over 4300 square miles, to be exact, consisting of 16 towns and over 90 unorganized territories within its borders. From a tourism perspective, it offers breathtaking natural beauty, amazing recreational activities, and year-round outdoor destinations. For those who call these small, developing towns of Piscataquis county “home”, there is a keen understanding of the sweetness and quality of life here that’s hard to match. In spite of all of this, for years, the county has been labeled the poorest in the state. Statistics usually don’t lie. Two years ago, when I was given the cold hard facts about where we were as a county, I understood why the morale was so low. It seemed to me like there was a cloak of negativity and oppression covering the entire county, and I have blogged about it before. But in 2015, something began to change.
The Piscataquis Economic Development Council (PCEDC) brought in a new leader, Executive Director Christopher Winstead (above, center), who jumped in and got right to work, and our two chambers began to work together for the first time in history. I (above, left) am the Director of the Piscataquis Chamber (PCCC), handling the southern region of Piscataquis from a business and community perspective, and Angie Arno (above, right), the Director of the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce (MLRC), handles the Greenville/Moosehead Lake region and surrounding territories from a tourism perspective. My understanding is that there was no collaboration whatsoever in years past, and there was even a sense of animosity, which often happens when two chambers are located in close proximity, mainly because we are membership-based organizations, which creates competition.
This is definitely no longer the case!
Within days of being hired as then-interim director, Angie Arno contacted me to chat, and the rest is history. Angie and I realize we are on the same team, we have the same goal – which is to make this county stronger. The MLRC is extremely gifted at promoting outdoor tourism for our County – which is not a main focus of the PCCC – which seeks to provide support and promotion to the businesses in the county. As far as I am concerned, this is a match made in heaven. We work together, sharing ideas and resources, and we both sit on the Executive Board of the Piscataquis Economic Development Council. Doing so allows us to each take the needs of our individual regions back to Chris, who brings in funding for the county, and works with other state and federal organizations to satisfy the needs we bring to him. It’s amazing what can happen when there is a unified effort to make a region stronger. I am so very thankful for this team!
From a governing perspective, we have seen overwhelming support from our local state representative, Norm Higgins, who had his hands in more projects than I can even count in 2015, taking our needs to the house, speaking to anyone that would listen, and being an instrument of change for us. There has been great support from our state Senators and Congressman as well, and I am confident that our needs and struggles as a county are being recognized, and we are gaining ground. I can’t exactly put my finger on when it happened, but I am certain there is no going back. I have been pondering the best way to explain what is transpiring here, and struggling to put my excitement into words. I want to share with you the noticeable, physical changes – that part will be easy. It’s the other piece I have difficulty verbalizing. The feeling, the anticipation, the excitement, and the hope. So, where is it coming from?
In 2007, something significant took place in our county that impacted many lives. After 60 years in business, Moosehead Manufacturing announced it was making preparations to close its doors and dismiss over 125 employees. The company, which was once the largest privately owned furniture factory in New England, was the leading employer in Monson and one of the largest employers in Dover-Foxcroft at the time of the announcement. After doing everything they could to survive in the global market, they were ultimately unable to compete with low-priced furniture imported from foreign countries, causing their sales to drop by almost 50% in their final seven years in business. After two previous lay-offs, the beloved company was out of options and out of time. From a financial and economic perspective, it was devastating for the county, the region, and the state, and for those involved, it was equally painful on an emotional level. In fact, the adult daughter of one former employee told me: “Even years later, every time I drove passed the empty, dilapidated building, my heart would sink and I would feel a sadness I just couldn’t escape. Still, somewhere under all the sadness remained a fondness for what Moosehead meant to my family.”
Then, in July of 2013, a runaway MMA train carrying petroleum crude oil exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people (see story here). Within two weeks of the disaster, MMA laid off 60 workers, many from the company’s repair yard in the Derby section of Milo. Soon after, bankruptcy proceedings began. The families of those who lost their jobs were not the only ones affected; the railway had always been a secure foundational contributor to the Milo-Brownville economy, and business owners, from repairmen, to parts dealers, to restaurant owners, felt the effects immediately. The MMA workers had been some of Milo’s businesses’ best customers – customers that would no longer walk through their doors. The impact was not felt by businesses alone. Residents were also concerned, fearing that the town would increase property taxes to offset the loss of revenue from the MMA.
In the midst of this, the county continued to grow older. Several younger families felt they had no choice but to move to areas where they could earn more money, some even left the state. High school graduates continued to leave the county, and more and more folks were retiring. An older population typically means fewer dollars are being spent in the local economy; in turn, poverty continues to be an issue which causes a rise in prescription drug use, broken homes, foreclosures, and on and on it goes.
So, where was I? Oh yes – hope.
We possess a strength, perseverance, and resolve here in Piscataquis that I am VERY proud of. I am not from here originally, but I am proud to be here now. We are proof that there is life after death, newness after brokenness, and beauty after ashes. The statistics on paper haven’t changed much, though there is evidence that poverty levels in Piscataquis have decreased, employment rates have increased, and most businesses have shown growth in their profits for the first time in years. Sure, what’s on paper is important, but people care more about pavement than paper. The changes people see are real and tangible, noticeable and impactful, throughout their communities and right up to their front doors. Normally, when positive change happens, it is good, even if it only benefits a place for a short while. The changes happening here are beneficial, long-term. I believe we are working SMARTER in this county. We are working together. We are thinking about the future. From Dover-Foxcroft to Guilford, to Moosehead Lake to Milo, here are just a few of the amazing things that took place in 2015:
Let’s start with Milo. The poorest town in the poorest county in the state of Maine, so they say. All I have seen in this little town is g r o w t h, especially in 2015. The businesses who faced so much uncertainty just a few years ago found a way to stay alive and thrive. Generational businesses like Bailey Lumber, Dewitt-Jones Realty, Lumbra Inc. and Trask Insurance, staples of the Milo community, are going strong. Elaine’s Bakery & Basket Café might have had one of her busiest years to date, and has received more recognition from local media than ever before, bringing more business through Milo. Pat’s Pizza added a Gifford’s Ice Cream stand and continues to be a community favorite. Family Dollar moved out of the Tradewind’s Market lot and into a brand new building, and a new store, Park Street Discount Apparel & More opened in its place, giving residents throughout Piscataquis another option for clothing without having to drive to Bangor. For the second time since it’s opening, New Beginnings Residential Care & Assisted Living Facility expanded to offer more private rooms, an additional dining area, and more overall living space for the residents. The addition also made available a daycare for children for the staff and community.
If all that isn’t enough, let me tell you about one more VERY exciting thing happening in Milo. You might not be aware that Milo has a business park. There, the Three Rivers Kiwanis erected a beautiful new building for their organization and the community, which was dedicated in July of 2014. The large meeting area is available for rent and offers the county another option for parties and or large meetings. In the same parking lot, a new building is underway for a museum called the Harrigan Learning Center, containing unimaginable archaeological finds that I believe will bring families and classrooms full of kids from across the state of Maine, and will undoubtedly have an impact on tourism as well.
Though the Museum is not scheduled to open until early spring, I had an opportunity to walk through it just this week, and I cannot wait for the world to see it. This place can easily go toe to toe and nose to nose with many of the larger museums in New England. I was completely floored by what I saw, and you will be, too.
I cannot talk about the Three Rivers Kiwanis or the Harrigan Learning Center without mentioning Maine Alternative Solutions, owned and operated by Ron & Amy Desmarais. They played a pivotal role in the formation of the business park and both building projects. Ron is constantly striving to advance business and bring new innovation to Milo. He himself owns several businesses in town, while building homes and apartments in an effort to provide affordable housing for Milo residents. He has helped to expand several Milo businesses by building additions and making improvements, donating his time and labor costs, and often materials. He has brought alternative heat and power sources to Milo through heat pumps and solar power. These are only some of the reasons his company was named the 2015 Piscataquis Chamber Business of the Year, which was the first time a Milo business was ever recognized for this award. It’s hard to imagine Milo was once called “a little town going nowhere”; this little town seems unstoppable! Whatever will these folks do in 2016?
Let’s talk about Greenville for a moment, more specifically Moosehead Lake. Look out folks – you are going to see more, hear more, and read more about Moosehead Lake than you ever have before, and she will be known by her new name: “America’s Crown Jewel”.
In 2015, a branding initiative was launched for the Moosehead Lake region by international branding consultant Roger Brooks and a grassroots group organized by the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp. In addition to a huge push on marketing the new brand through print, television and radio, the group plans to install “way-finding” signage to help people navigate the entire lake region, even those sweet, hidden spots that only the locals know about. Within the next 5-7 years, expect to see upgrades in town, making it more walkable and inviting. They are even planning to build a beautiful pavilion in the center of town. Moosehead Lake has always been a key to Piscataquis’ tourism revenue, so it’s exciting to think about the possibilities- anyone traveling to Greenville will have to drive through the county, which means the entire county will benefit from her rebirth. Ultimately, the hope is that this re-invention of the region will create a year-round economy that will help reverse the region’s population decline.
Before I get back to southern Piscataquis happenings, I want to mention a little business in Shirley that has received a lot of press lately: Dove Tail Bats, owned by Paul and Theresa Lancisi, is making bats for the minor and major leagues – I’m working on a blog about them- so stay tuned; I just had to mention it. It was thrilling to see the Dove Tail Bat logo on bats being swung at the World Series, and even more thrilling to see home-run hits coming off these bats – made right here in our own back yard! Calls are coming in every day from some of the greatest players in baseball who now want to try the bat. Who would have thought the Major Leagues would do business in the little town of Shirley?
How neat is that?
There have been some large projects completed in Guilford this past year, just in time for their Bicentennial Anniversary. Early in 2015, a new Family Dollar opened for business across from Davis Bros. Furniture.
The Red Maple Inn, a community favorite offering a full menu, daily specials and delivery, added four brand-new guest rooms above the Inn from 2012 to 2014 and finished work on their façade in 2015. The building looks terrific, especially coming in from Abbot or Parkman, turning the corner over the new bridge in the center of town, also completed in 2015. Guilford is doing something really unique for their Bicentennial year; each month there will be an event of some kind, including “breakfast on the bridge”, a free Concert, and much more (I will be writing about Guilford in my next blog). For a schedule of events, please visit piscataquischamber.com/events/.
Last, but certainly NOT least, I want to brag about Dover-Foxcroft for a moment. The seat of Picataquis County, downtown Dover-Foxcroft, is the home of the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival, which this past summer brought an estimated 10,000 people into town.
Folks love Dover because it is a walk-able community, with sidewalks leading to great restaurants, an iconic community theatre, and an inviting coffee house, while offering all of the necessities; hardware stores, car dealerships, shops, food markets, churches, doctors, a YMCA, and a hospital are all within walking distance of the downtown area. And for years, in the center of it all, stood the broken down and abandoned Moosehead Manufacturing Mill. At least until 2015.
Since its closing in 2007, the town of Dover-Foxcroft knew something special had to be done with the building. Then, in 2009, a committee looked into the possibilities for the property and determined ‘mixed use’ as the best option for its redevelopment. Not long after, Jonathan Arnold, president and CEO of the Arnold Development Group of Kansas City, Missouri, expressed interest in downtown Dover-Foxcroft; he had visited and knew we had something special here. Jonathan began working with the town of Dover Foxcroft, and the project began.
It is so important to look at what a community needs, what it is lacking, when attempting a project of this size. An 11 million dollar project, to be exact – made possible through a variety of public and private investors, including Bangor Savings Bank, tax credits, CEI, USDA Rural Development, and individual impact investors through the Maine Community Foundation.
The end result is more magnificent than anticipated. Twenty -two apartments, and office spaces with gorgeous views of the river, a spectacular event space, a six-room boutique hotel and café with outdoor seating, eventually, a restaurant, and who knows? There’s room for more.
The Mill Event Space has already held dozens of events, including weddings, private and corporate parties and large meetings. The space is open and inviting, with beautiful views. The apartments are so unique for rural Maine, as are the hotel rooms, very organic and open.
The Café is surrounded by windows, giving customers a great view of both the Main St. and the Piscataquis River. The tables in the café were built by John Wentworth, who happens to be the former president of Moosehead Manufacturing, giving customers a connection to the facility’s past with every visit. On the day of the event, I noticed a woman crying while touring the building. I pulled her aside and asked her if she was alright. She answered: “I am just overwhelmed. This place was where my dad worked for 20 years. It was the main source of provision for my family. We were devastated when it closed. To look at it now, how it’s new and beautiful, but so much of the history was left intact, little reminders as you walk through, the doors, some of the switches…it’s incredible, I can’t help but be emotional, it is not forgotten anymore, it is celebrated again!”
The Mill isn’t the only big change Dover-Foxcroft has experienced in 2015, the old bowling alley on Summer St. was torn down and replaced by a beautiful new building, now called North View Apartments, a 24-unit Senior Housing facility built by Bowman Constructors. A long-awaited Dunkin’ Donuts opened on W Main St., and a new building was erected to house lumber for Dover True Value on South St.
Rowell’s Garage completed a highly anticipated project at the 2015 that residents of the entire county are excited about, an automatic car wash. Choose your package, pull in, put the car in park, and watch from inside your vehicle as the wash does all the work. I have been to many of these, having lived in NJ, and was still so impressed with how truly clean my car was, even the areas car washes usually miss, right down to the tires.
I’m usually a bit nervous that the brushes will damage my paint, but this system was as gentle as I would be if I washed it by hand! For the winter, the hours of operation are 7am to 7pm, and the only restriction is that the temperature needs to be above zero degrees, or the bay doors will not open.
2016 promises to be an exciting year as well, with several projects in the works for the county. A new pharmacy is coming to Dover-Foxcroft, for those who prefer more of a personal touch, great service and a bit of nostalgia, keep your eyes and ears open for Foxcroft Pharmacy, and stay tuned for my upcoming blog on the Guilford Bicentennial! Well, folks, I guess I will stop there, since this blog post is about to reach novel status. I can’t help it. I am thrilled about the progress we have made as a county- and I will keep you posted on what’s coming.
Thank you for hanging in there with me, and until next time, thanks again for taking a Peek into Piscataquis.