Mike Michaud worked for decades at the paper mill and represented Maine's 2nd District in Congress for 12 years. Now he's a selectman in East Millinocket, and the biggest cheerleader for the mill's redevelopment. Credit: Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

When the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket permanently closed its doors in 2014, 80 percent of the town’s tax base and the livelihoods of many families in the region went with it. Now, a former U.S. congressman who worked at the mill for decades has emerged as the biggest cheerleader of the site’s redevelopment.

Its future could include solar panels, biofuels and biochar.

This story is part of Maine Public’s “ Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine’s response, one county at a time” climate investigation series.

Driving around the East Millinocket mill site on a sunny morning in late June, Mike Michaud recalls the time when it was the center of the community.

“It was the largest employer, the biggest taxpayer and people from all around the region worked here,” he said. “It devastated the community and the region when the company closed.”

Michaud understood the devastation better than most. He’d started working at the mill after high school. His activism as a union millworker led to a political career including 12 years representing Maine’s 2nd District in Congress.

After he left that post in a failed bid for governor, he assumed a smaller elected position — chair of the East Millinocket selectmen. Now he’s active in redeveloping the mill site, which the town bought two years ago. One of the tenants, Logistics Management Systems, is leasing the mill’s former paper warehouse.

“That warehouse is full of paper, wood products, made here in Maine, and it’s a pretty busy place, and it’s good to see that the mill site is starting to get revitalized — some in the forest products sector, and others into new technologies, such as solar,” Michaud said.

Solar will be a big part of Convalt’s plans for the mill site. The New York company plans to build a community solar farm, and hopes to develop a plant here by 2023 to recycle old solar panels.

Another company hopes to produce wood-derived biofuels, like those used to heat the campus of Bates College. Another hopes to produce biochar, a climate-friendly fertilizer.

But Michaud says he doesn’t aim to create a sort of green-tech hub. He’s mainly interested in attracting a diverse group of employers.

“How can we diversify, so we’re not dependent upon one sector. That diversification, when you look at it in the future, is actually in some of the green technology, solar,” he said.

There’s a lot of support for that vision in the area.

“I don’t believe in climate change, but I do believe in green energy,” said Clint Linscott, who serves alongside Michaud on the board of selectmen and on a nonprofit that oversees the mill redevelopment.

Linscott runs a car repair shop on Main Street, and says he’s looking forward to the mill’s revitalization.

“My family’s from here, my dad’s a millworker, my granddad’s a millworker, I was a millworker. I got done back in the mid ’80s, and started my business here on Main Street. Everybody wished me luck, they didn’t think I could make it, because the only place you worked here was the mill, and that was where the money was. And it’s sad to see it gone,” he said.

Across the street at the post office, Carla Boutaugh says she, too, misses the mill.

“I was fortunate. I always said I was blessed to be able to work down there, it gave my family a good living,” she said. She worked there for 22 years.

“Manual labor, you know, pulling wood, feeding grinders, taking Mike’s job when he went to the State House,” she said with a laugh.

Boutaugh says she supports the revitalization plan, and that the whole town is rooting for Michaud.

“We’ve got a good man behind it. Mike’s really a pusher. And he’s put his heart and soul into the town and the mill,” she said.

Back at the mill site, Michaud shows off a vast swath of green space at its western edge, along the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where he envisions walking trails.

“You could have a brew pub, hotel, condominium all in one here, in this particular area. This is a perfect area. You have the Dolby Flowage. On the other side you can actually see Mount Kathadin. It’s a beautiful area. And I’m told that it’s great bass fishing between the two dams,” he said.

It’s a lofty dream, because much of the mill site consists of weedy patches of pavement winding past half-demolished buildings and piles of rubble. And there have been potholes in the road to redevelopment.

Standard Biocarbon, the biochar company, has changed its plans, and decided to develop its first plant in Enfield, though it still hopes to eventually develop a project in East Millinocket. Two companies had hoped to develop data centers on the site. One of those recently dropped out, but the other is moving forward with its plans.

And Michaud remains undeterred.

“I am very optimistic. It’s not going to happen overnight. And I’m very cautious about what we advertise out there in the public. We haven’t had any open house or anything like that because all too often you hear, well, this company is coming, and it never shows up. You don’t want to build up expectations and let them fall,” he said.

For now there’s just the paper warehouse, a handful of Convalt employees providing security to the site and a vision of what could be.

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.