Presque Isle City Council Chairman Kevin Freeman (left) and council member Mike Chasse look over paperwork during a May meeting. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County businesses may be forced to close or leave unless they can find a way to attract more workers, posing a challenge for a local group fighting a decades-long population slide.

The Northern Maine Growth Initiative is asking Presque Isle to seek a $150,000 Community Development Block Grant to hire a recruiter to bring immigrants and foreign workers to The County to fill labor shortages.

The recent drop in population has leaders warning that the effect on businesses could be dire, raising the stakes for a rural county that has lost 7.1 percent of its population in the last decade. Since last June, Aroostook has lost more workers than any other Maine county.

The unemployment rate has dropped statewide, the Maine Department of Labor reported Friday. And in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties, there are more workers now than there were in June 2021. Those numbers are down in Washington and Piscataquis counties, where workers decreased by 140 and 160, respectively.

But it’s the worst in Aroostook, where the nonfarm labor force has lost 430 people in the last year.  

“We’re running out of people. That’s the bottom line,” said Paul Towle, president of the Caribou-based Aroostook Partnership. “We don’t have enough people to effectively staff our businesses here. Businesses will go where they can find staff.”

The most critical issue facing Aroostook and Washington counties is population decline, said Timothy Crowley, growth initiative member and president of Northern Maine Community College.

Northern Maine Community College President Timothy Crowley. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Community College

The initiative represents Aroostook County business, educational, social services and faith-based groups. Crowley and other members met with the Presque Isle City Council and community leaders Thursday to discuss the problem.

The current population can’t support business growth, so The County needs to grow its number of residents, Crowley said.

“Workforce demands are going to grow, and we’re going to wind up taking from each other to keep going,” he said. “If we don’t respond to this, businesses will get smaller.”

The two-year position would include not only recruiting, but also one-on-one case management, connecting workers and their families with resources like housing, integrating international workers into the community, and carrying out sensitivity training and cultural awareness.

The growth initiative is recruiting families now and members plan to talk with representatives of Maine’s Afghan community soon, Crowley said.

The college campus has a number of apartments available where families could live while working at businesses in the Presque Isle Industrial Park, he said.

A city working group has examined rental and other housing concerns, and earlier this year the Aroostook County Action Program furthered its plans to open 14 transitional housing units at its Edgemont Drive property.

“We really feel like we’re several hundred housing units behind where we should be in Presque Isle,” City Council Chairman Kevin Freeman said.

Housing is a big concern, Councilor Jacob Shaw said. There have been people already established here, ready to join the workforce, but couldn’t because they didn’t have a place to live, he said.  

Local business leaders shared their struggles with fulfilling open jobs, citing concerns from worker shortages and lack of housing to complicated immigration procedures that delayed employees’ start dates.

Doug Cyr, regional human resources manager for Irving Woodlands, said the company is growing, but has ventured outside Aroostook County to Bangor, Texas and even foreign countries to find workers.

Bringing people not just to Presque Isle but anywhere in Aroostook County will help, Freeman said.

“No one single bullet is going to solve all of these issues,” Freeman said. “I wonder if in a two-year period this can work. If the effort goes away after two years, what then?”

The grant proposal mentioned recruiting illiterate, homeless and migrant farm workers, said City Councilor Craig Green. Some people worry that description could draw people who don’t have the ability to work, he said.

The growth initiative will look at changing the wording, Crowley said.

“When we think of everything that makes a happy, successful life, Aroostook County has it,” he said. “We just need to get ourselves in the game, and this is one way to do it.”