By Wanda Curtis

While much of Maine is busy dealing with challenges created by the pandemic, the Katahdin region is looking toward the future. No strangers to adversity, hundreds of area residents found themselves in dire circumstances after the 2008 closure of the Great Northern Paper Mill in Millinocket. Since that time, they’ve been taking steps to boost their economy and to attract new employers into the area.  

President/CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation (EMDC) Lee Umphrey said that the Katahdin region is gaining momentum and has lots of potential. He said the Penobscot County Commissioners funded an EMDC position to be embedded in the community. He explained that individual was charged with leading the efforts of the Katahdin Region Development Board. Part of that effort is to encourage and work collaboratively with other organizations in the area. 

“The two mill sites in particular, Millinocket and East Millinocket, are talking to several business prospects to bolster redevelopment efforts at the former mill sites,” said Umphrey.  

Federal Funds Distributed to Help Existing Businesses

To help existing businesses recover during the pandemic, Umphrey said $1,275,000 of federal CARES Act funding was distributed in the Katahdin region via the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and EMDC.   EMDC also helped several businesses in accessing Payroll Protection Plan funds via the United States Small Business Administration.

Efforts to Make Broadband Accessible to Everyone

Lucy Van Hook, Community Development Director for the nonprofit Our Katahdin, said a major priority in the area is to make broadband accessible to everyone.

Their goal is “to connect all households to support business development and opportunities for entrepreneurism, quality of place improvements, remote worker attraction, telehealth and educational opportunities,” she said.

According to Van Hook, Tri-town Katahdin Regional Broadband Utility is spearheading and driving the agenda. She said broadband development for the tri-town area of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway is being directed by the Katahdin Region Broadband Utility (KRBU) board. Their president, Kyle Leathers, is navigating options for buildout of fiber broadband in the region. 

“East Millinocket, Millinocket and Medway completed an engineering study to design a fiber to the premise network to work with the Katahdin Region Broadband Utility (KRBU) to connect residents and businesses to high speed internet,” said Van Hook. “KRBU and the municipalities are exploring funding options.”

In addition, Van Hook reported that requests for proposals for construction and operation of a network that universally provides fiber-to-the-premises to every household in the tri-town region were released on January 15, 2021 by KRBU and bids were received in March. 

“The Utility is still reviewing options for ownership and financing with all of the new federal dollars available for broadband infrastructure build out,” said Van Hook. “The writing was on the wall about future funds becoming available for broadband construction projects, so the Utility has been diligently reviewing options with consideration of [their] goals of having 100% coverage (connection) in the three towns, open access so multiple ISPs can operate on the same network and create competition to help with affordability to customers, and local ownership of the broadband assets. Potential funding sources for broadband infrastructure projects include the individual counties from ARPA funds received, the new Connect Maine Authority, and specific federal grant opportunities through the USDA Re-Connect program and the EDA.” 

Other broadband improvements in the region, said Van Hook, have included free wifi hotspots in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway; the installation of 1.2 miles of fiber to serve downtown businesses along Penobscot Avenue in Millinocket; as well as the installation of 24/7 wireless routers at the Millinocket Library to ensure access from cars outside the building, to be safe and socially distanced without losing access.

New Data Center Plans to Move into Former Paper Mill Building

Last June, Our Katahdin announced that Nautilus Data Technologies (a sustainable data center technology company) executed a 99-year lease with the non-profit to locate a data center at the site of the former Great Northern Paper Mill. Van Hook said Our Katahdin has moved forward with engineering, permitting and ground work to prepare that site for construction. She reported that Our Katahdin is in Phase 2 of its infrastructure buildout at the 1,400-acre former mill site. That includes $8.5 million in improvements to the onsite power grid, data transmission, sewer and water systems, roads and rail. 

“Our Katahdin is working to expand the potential of Maine’s forest bioeconomy,” said Van Hook. “Economic development is collaborative, and we are working at the community, state and national level to build relationships that will assist us in attracting new businesses in the digital, forest and small manufacturing sectors. We are interested in partnering with tenants who require affordable energy, access to clear and cold water, quality broadband networks, and abundant raw materials from our vast local forests. All of these benefits are available here in Millinocket. We also hope to create new forest products supply chains that link Maine’s under-utilized forests to growing global demand for sustainability.” 

Improvements in the Area

The Katahdin region is working not only to attract new businesses and sustain existing businesses but also to make improvements in the area. Some improvements in the area in recent months, said Van Hook, have included a new oncology unit at the Millinocket Regional Hospital, new bike trails in Millinocket, new athletic fields at Medway Middle School, a new mountain bike track in Patten, new campsites at Lunksoos in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and upgrading of Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway to a National Scenic Byway. She said there is also a new biking and snowshoeing trail behind the Stearns High School in Millinocket. 

Chairman of Millinocket Town Council Steven Golieb said there’s a lot to be excited about for Millinocket and the Katahdin region.  He said the community made the decision to put a strong foot down and step up to the challenges of today’s complex global economy.

“Our town leadership, volunteers, community members and local non-profits have come together in an outstandingly passionate, innovative and creative way,” said Golieb.  “We’re working together and we’re succeeding. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of that process.” 

Millinocket Hires New Town Manager

In other news, the town of Millinocket has a new town manager. Millinocket native Peter Jamieson assumed the position in January, after serving as economic development director for the Katahdin region since last spring. He previously served as Director of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce.

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