With two recent votes in East Millinocket and Medway rejecting the idea of a national park adjacent to Baxter State Park, the area faces a critical question: Now what?

Since the fall of 2008, when the first of the Katahdin region’s two iconic paper mills closed, about 450 high-paying jobs have disappeared. A national park’s potential as an economic engine for the region has been much touted, but the votes have stalled its momentum.

Opinions on the park also have divided these struggling communities. Yet those who support and those who oppose the national park do have a rare point of agreement: Both do not see any large-scale employment emerging in the region in the near future.

There is hope from a half-dozen potential investors who’ve inquired about the Huber Industrial Park in Millinocket and the former Great Northern Paper Co. site in East Millinocket, but any movement is unlikely until 2016 at the earliest, if anything happens at all.

“There are things in the works,” said East Millinocket Selectman Mark Marston, a park opponent. “Some things are happening. I can’t say what they are,” he added, alluding to informal conversations he said he’s had with potential investors.

“Right now I don’t see a lot happening,” said Bruce Jones, chairman of Medway’s Board of Selectmen and a park supporter. “There is really nothing out there that is knocking on our doors, so I can’t really say that we [Medway officials] are doing anything to tackle the economy.”

In Millinocket, an official said the park talk is an impediment to business interest in the region. Once it ends, said Town Councilor Michael Madore, a park opponent, “we can then have serious talks with people who realize what a location we have for any type of industry.”

Despite the defeats at the polls, little evidence exists that the national park first proposed by wealthy landowner Roxanne Quimby, and now being pushed by her son, Lucas St. Clair, is stymied. The day after the vote in East Millinocket, officials with the organization advocating for the park, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., said their campaign was resuming.

Now what?

A former Millinocket official has one answer: The region’s leaders and residents need to break from old rivalries and must work together to secure their economic future.

“We really do need each other,” said Peggy Daigle, a former East Millinocket selectwoman who was Millinocket’s town manager until earlier this year. “They could take the attitude of, instead of being afraid of it, let’s try to do something new. It could be an exciting time for the towns to reinvent themselves.”

Individual efforts

The towns of East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket don’t do much economic development work separately, and they do even less together.

For example, Jones in Medway said officials have long discussed running sewer lines along Route 157 to Interstate 95 to make it more developable. But Medway must wait for East Millinocket to redevelop the former Great Northern wastewater treatment plant to support the sewer service.

In the meantime, East Millinocket is working with Hackman Capital Partners of Los Angeles to market the former Great Northern mill on Main Street, which Hackman purchased for $5.4 million in December. No progress is apparent.

Millinocket has discussed creating a public electric company, bringing high-speed Internet to downtown, and advertising its industrial parks, but no initiatives have been launched.

The only united initiative is the Katahdin Area Recovery and Expansion committee, which distributes about $150,000 annually to area businesses from Brookfield Asset Management, former owner of the region’s paper mills, as part of a deal with the state over 10 years ago.

The money is a valuable tool for helping grow local businesses, but the real need is far greater, according Daigle, who cites three points:

The towns don’t work together much, she said, and lack defined economic development strategies. Plus, the job of managing these communities’ services through a decade of turmoil has left leaders “burnt out with the responsibilities they are carrying.”

Yet when guidance is offered, the response can be unwelcome.

Earlier this year, a Virginia economic development agency, CZB Associates, offered to evaluate the region, but its report — written for freecriticized Millinocket leaders and residents for failing to address their economic problems.

The agency said Millinocket must invest in and beautify itself, consolidate schools, seek grants and create a regional economic development strategy based on public land and tourism.

While the report provoked a strong response from some community interests, and was regarded as a sound blueprint — and some tough medicine — for the region, leaders in the three communities have shelved it.

What’s next for the park?

In the absence of other economic development, and given the continued motivation of St. Clair, the debate about the future of the Katahdin region will likely continue to center around the park.

St. Clair has said he doesn’t favor it, but the possibility exists that the park’s pathway to being established could be more incremental. Presidents have the authority to declare “national monuments” through executive order, which could later turn into national parks via legislation.

It’s been done before in Maine. President Woodrow Wilson named part of what is now Acadia National Park a national monument in 1916. Three years later, it became a national park.

President Barack Obama has used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate 16 national monuments, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. There is speculation, as well, that the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016 could spark a flurry of designations during Obama’s final year in office.

Absent an executive order by Obama, congressional staffers say that chances are a bill’s passage and a park’s creation would take three to nine years. Six to nine years is a more likely timeline, they say, barring any significant federal resistance to the idea, which could kill the bill altogether.

Even if St. Clair stays on course to convince Maine’s congressional delegation to support the park, his campaign still faces a tough test after the outcome of the Medway and East MIllinocket votes. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, issued a joint statement on the votes this week.

“Robust local support is essential for the success of any new endeavor,” they said. “Hearing from those who call the Katahdin region home is significant, and the recent votes in Medway and East Millinocket demonstrate that serious concerns remain about the national park proposal and what it would mean for the local communities and for Maine’s future.”

Only U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has said she supports the park. Collins, King and Poliquin declined to comment further for this article.

Their joint statement puzzled proponents and opponents of the park. Medway Selectman Rob Farrington, who opposes the park, said he didn’t know how much weight the delegates would give his town’s 252-102 vote on June 23 to reject the park.

“Do they go with what the local people want or the whole state wants? I don’t know. This thing drives me crazy,” Farrington said.

East Millinocket voted 320-191 against the park on June 29. Mark Scally, chairman of East Millinocket’s Board of Selectmen and a park supporter, questioned the delegates’ strategy.

“If the whole federal delegation said that [local support was vital], they had best honor that,” Scally said. “If it becomes a statewide referendum, then why put the onus on us?”

Millinocket Town Councilor Anita Mueller, also a park supporter, said the lack of direction from delegates is troubling. Because federal legislation is the first step to creating a park, Mueller called upon the delegates to provide a draft of a federal bill to define the plan.

For a region with so much uncertainty ahead, a lack of tangible ideas could cause its future to be dictated by fears and not facts.

“Our delegation needs to write some legislation so we are talking about real issues instead of dreamed-up concerns,” Mueller said. “People are making decisions based on emotion, not reality.”