Matt Polstein, a MaineCF board member, has worked with others to rebuild the region's economy. 

Nonprofit Investments, Community Spirit, Help a Former Mill Town Move Forward  

The magic is back in Millinocket these days with community spirit that won’t let this once-booming mill town fade away.

Millinocket wore its “Magic City” moniker for decades, rooted in the region’s rapid growth as hard-working newcomers from Canada, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Finland flocked to the area at the turn of the 20
th century. They built the world’s largest paper mill, rolling out newsprint around the clock while earning above-average paychecks.

Since the mill’s final closure in 2008, the town population that once peaked at 7,700 has dropped to around 4,000. Today, hope for renewed growth springs from volunteers, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and investors who see potential in the area’s wealth of natural resources, rural charm, and commitment to economic development.

Matt Polstein, a MaineCF board member, has watched the town’s transition since he opened the New England Outdoor Center adventure resort in 1982. “When the mills were closing, as a community we were looking outward for salvation,” he says. “I think we’ve changed to a community that’s recognized that if we’re going to make things better here we’re happy to get help, but we’re going to have to do it ourselves. It’s got to happen here.”

Our Katahdin, a nonprofit and MaineCF grantee fueled by volunteers, has led revitalization efforts that include purchase of the former mill site for $1. Earlier this year, North Carolina-based LignaCLT announced plans to build a plant there that will produce cross-laminated timber and create up to 100 jobs.

Volunteers include local engineers who are helping Our Katahdin create a hub for its Next Generation Fiber Park, which can provide infrastructure and utility needs for additional modern forest product industries.

The vast Maine woods that drew Henry David Thoreau to the region in 1846 also hold new potential for tourism with the designation of
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.  And last December, the third Millinocket Marathon and Half drew 1,100 runners – more than doubling 2016 registrations.   

“There is a strong sense of pride, family, and community here and we must tap into that pride and change the conversation from ‘how do we keep the doors open’ to ‘how do we make the Katahdin region the top four-season destination in the eastern United States’,” says Matt DeLaney, director of the town’s public library.

Northern Forest Center, with support from MaineCF donor investors and a 2018 community-building grant, is opening doors for more new residents by purchasing and renovating downtown homes into high-quality rental units.

The nonprofit and other partners also launched the first phase of a broadband technology plan with Wi-Fi hotspots along Millinocket’s main street.
  Jessica Masse, a partner at Designlab, can point to the firm’s first-place national marketing awards to demonstrate why connecting to the world is so critical for Millinocket. The digital and creative economy has real potential to become a pillar of a diversified economy in the Katahdin region,” Masse says.

Library director DeLaney and others drawn to this small town know that discipline, communication, and cooperation will be key to create more magic as Millinocket reinvents itself:
 “It feels a little bit like the Wild West,” DeLaney says. “In a great way.”

Lucy Van Hook: Building a Future

Lucy Van Hook fell in love with Maine’s coast during a high school study trip, returned from her home in upstate New York to attend Bowdoin College, then followed her heart to Millinocket.

Not quite three years later, she and her “dream man” Eben Sypitkowski (with his dream job at Baxter State Park) are married, own a house in town, and have a black fuzzy pup and new daughter Maisie – one of 23 Millinocket babies born in 2017. Van Hook is community development director at Our Katahdin, a MaineCF grantee that provides a platform for community-driven revitalization projects.

“This small vehicle to raise funds has increased a sense of pride, and a sense of change and a sense of possibility,” says Van Hook. Since 2015, Our Katahdin has funded 31 community projects and helped nurture 26 community leaders to implement them.

Van Hook believes an anchor tenant at the One Katahdin mill site is key to building an infrastructure that will attract other modern wood product industries and sustain a resilient economy. High-speed internet, she adds, is absolutely necessary to support existing businesses and attract new entrepreneurs and others who will help the region thrive. 

Ten years from now, Van Hook hopes to see a downtown with outside spaces for local food and beer, recreational trails that connect Millinocket to other places, and a community center that serves all ages. And as the town grows, she’ll watch Maisie blossom and join more children on their morning walk to school.

Above: Lucy Van Hook with her daughter, Maisie, near the former mill site in Millinocket.

 Jessica Masse:
Connecting the World

Jessica Masse and John Hafford know the power of making connections. In 2004 when Hafford founded Designlab, the partners’ nationally recognized design and marketing firm, they could wait hours for dial-up internet service to send large files from Millinocket.

“Our growth as a company is directly related to broadband,” says Masse. The Aroostook County natives are champions for broadband expansion, but the Katahdin region’s large geographical area makes it an expensive investment for private companies.

Masse believes public investment – whether as a public utility or some other creative solution – may be needed to reduce those costs.  “The internet is quite literally our connection to the world and it should be accessible to everyone,” she says.

Masse and Hafford spent six years in Boston before they moved to Millinocket full time. And even after a decade, she says, they’re regularly surprised by the beauty of a new discovery: a hidden sand beach, a grove of giant moss- covered boulders in an old growth forest, an unexplored hiking trail, a body of water tucked in the shadow of Katahdin.

Masse's optimistic others in the digital economy will follow: “There is a pool of creative would-be entrepreneurs currently working in urban centers who would much prefer to work in a place they love while accessing markets around the world.”

Above, a town Wi-Fi tower is on the roof of Designlab, the downtown business owned by John Hafford and Jessica Masse.

Mike Brown: Restoring his Hometown

 Mike Brown, like so many other Millinocket residents, had to rethink his future after mill “downsizing” in 1986. Today the former millwright-turned-contractor and cabinet maker works to rebuild the town he’s called home nearly all his life. Brown renovates properties the nonprofit Northern Forest Center purchased to expand housing options and revitalize neighborhoods where asking prices for homes may not top $35,000

“I don’t think that we will ever see a situation where we have one employer that had the workforce of the mill,” Brown says, “but I think that may not be a negative.” He predicts more businesses and a diversified workforce for his hometown: “I have a very positive outlook for Millinocket’s future.”

Mike Brown, a former millworker, renovates Millinocket homes for a Northern Forest Center initiative to provide more housing in town.

Matt DeLaney:
Seeing Beyond Books

Matt DeLaney has a personal mission to inspire positive change, and he’s found a place and profession where he can do just that as director of Millinocket Memorial Library. In 2016, he and his partner Emilie discovered what they wanted here: “a small, rural town, where we could live a simple life in a close-knit community with access to outdoor adventure.”

DeLaney had worked for a decade in New York state public libraries. He saw Millinocket going through dramatic changes and knew residents urgently needed a dynamic library that would support its transition. Supporters are now readying the 1963 facility for growth through a $1.25-million building renovation planned for 2019 – a “future-proof library” that can adapt to changing community and technological needs.

“I think a major part of the library's role in the efforts here is to contribute to the incredible quality of place of the region,” says DeLaney. This spring MaineCF awarded the library a community-building grant to establish and run the Katahdin Gear Hub. The gear-lending library will work with other organizations to loan local residents mountain bikes, cross-country skis, snowshoes, and backpacks so they, too, can participate in the area’s four-season recreational economy. 

When DeLaney envisions the future, he hopes people will know Millinocket for its innovative and enriching public education system and bustling, age-friendly community with jobs and cutting-edge manufacturing. “Millinocket Memorial Library will be a vibrant center of discovery and learning,” he predicts, “and Millinocket will be a place that invites young people to return home to start a business and start a family.”

Above: Matt DeLaney with a rendering of renovations planned for Millinocket Memorial Library.

MaineCF Grants: From Trails to Entrepreneurs

Recent grants from the Penobscot County Fund to Millinocket area nonprofits total more than $68,000.

Our Katahdin
  • 2015: to launch a leadership incubator focused on supporting local entrepreneurs and community leaders in partnership with Katahdin Region Higher Education Center
  • 2016: to create a vision and improvement plan for the downtown corridor of the Katahdin region
  • 2017: to commission a site plan for the former Millinocket paper mill site that highlights opportunities for future economic development

Katahdin Tourism Partnership, 2015, to support the Katahdin Woods & Waters Scenic Byway Improvement Project, which will develop four off-road parking areas and improve a trail segment
Friends of Baxter State Park, 2016, to develop and launch a Baxter Youth Conservation Corps
Millinocket Memorial Library, 2018, to help build the Katahdin Gear Hub to engage the community in multi-generational programming by improving access to outdoor recreation in the region
Northern Forest Center, 2018, to contribute to Millinocket’s revitalization by purchasing, renovating, and reselling homes in the downtown, setting a new quality standard for housing, and attracting new residents.

- Andrea Nemitz
Photos, Thalassa Raasch