Credit: George Danby

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Steve Richardson is the vice president of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, board chair of Katahdin Trust Company/Bankshares and a partner at Richardson’s Hardware in Patten. Tom Shafer is the co-founder of Maine Heritage Timber.

There’s no shortcut to revitalizing a region hit hard by global economic market changes that destroyed the largest employers in many towns relatively quickly.

It takes hard work, with many hands, and time. We are beginning to see what can happen when communities come together, with the assistance of both private and public capital.

Considering the turmoil of our COVID years, what’s happening in the Katahdin region is amazing, as the groundwork is laid for new economic opportunity.

Recently, the Bangor Daily News published an insert urging readers to “Discover the Katahdin Region.” Evidence suggests that people are taking notice far outside of the BDN’s circulation area, and we’re proud to see our communities spotlighted with headlines devoid of mill closures and economic woe.

New businesses have risen up and new capital has come into our communities. These have come in the form of shops, restaurants and businesses that used to be closed but new entrepreneurs have taken on the challenge of re-establishing themselves in the area.

New construction and rehabilitation are taking place on our lakes and rivers. New construction on our main streets is putting people to work; a shortage of skilled labor struggles to keep up with demand.

Mill sites in East Millinocket and Millinocket are potential new industrial business development parks for outside-the-box new businesses such as data centers and renewable energy.

East Millinocket, Millinocket and Medway are working to bring new, fiber optic broadband to the towns, giving residents and businesses access to the kind of infrastructure that’s critical in a modern economy. Not so long ago, it was hard to imagine this type of multi-town, public-private partnership.

The Katahdin Collaborative was awarded a Working Communities Challenge grant, bringing $375,000 to the region over three years to continue youth and outdoor recreation development.

And our outdoor recreation economy – always important to the region – is seeing a new burst of energy. The Millinocket Library has a program that loans outdoor equipment such as bikes and canoes to help expand access to the outdoors. Katahdin region students recently attended Vacation Camp at Millinocket Memorial Library, a program in collaboration with Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, Katahdin Gear Library, FoodCorps, and Outdoor Sports Institute.

Last year, the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway was designated a National Scenic Byway, which helps to bring new people, new jobs and new attention to the natural wonders in our region.

And Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, now in its sixth year, has witnessed a steady increase in visitation. The monument attracted more than 40,000 visitors last year, while major projects in the monument have improved access, added vault toilets and doubled the number of camping sites available for reservation.

The monument creates $3.3 million in economic benefits to the region and has supported 38 new jobs, including some exciting growth in Patten. Noteworthy is the $1.2 million fiscal year 2022 appropriation for the monument championed by Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and supported by Sen. Angus King and Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree.

There’s more work to be done. We need to continue the redevelopment of the mill sites, use federal and state dollars to help local businesses recover from COVID-19, attract new people and new business to the region, add southern access to the national monument so that the economic benefits can grow. And, we need to embrace a diverse economy grounded in technology, innovation, and outdoor recreation.

As a four-season destination tourism hotspot, with new technology companies that recognize the strength of our region and remote workers who discover the wonders of the North Woods as they connect to the world through new high-speed broadband, the Katahdin Region is on the move.

The progress that we’ve made has been hard-earned, but if we stay focused and open ourselves to new ideas and new opportunities, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.