Skowhegan leaders hope the investment will bring more jobs, activities and business and inspire people to settle in town.
A man walks through downtown Skowhegan on Sept. 14, 2021. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — From major expansions at New Balance and Sappi to Maine’s first whitewater park, Skowhegan is expected to see about $650 million of investment in the next three years.

The Somerset County town, which has 8,620 people, 2020 census data show, hasn’t experienced such momentum in decades, according to town officials.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why such substantial public and private investment is coming to Skowhegan, but developers and others see potential in the rural town’s assets, like a historic mill getting a $15 million facelift. More big-picture planning that considers the effects of development is happening, town officials said. And projects that were discussed and made little progress over the years, such as the $12 million Skowhegan River Park, are finally converging.

For Skowhegan’s residents, this means more jobs and chances to be involved in shaping the community, said Jeff Hewett, the town’s director of economic and community development. Community leaders hope the investments bring more jobs, activities and businesses to keep people in the area. 

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Melvin Burnham, a resident and retired director of the Skowhegan History House Museum & Research Center. “The town has gotten to a place where it’s being noticed and sees potential for growth and for the fact that we have good, working people.”

Skowhegan has long been known for its shoemakers and workers at textile and paper mills, said Burnham, who now works as a consultant and on special historical projects. Hard-working people are still there, and improvements coming in the next several years should boost their lives and the local economy, he said.

Sappi's $418 million investment in its Somerset Mill is the largest planned in Skowhegan over the next three years.
In this Sept. 14, 2021, file photo, the Sappi paper mill is seen in Skowhegan. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Of the projects totaling about $650 million, Sappi’s $418 million investment to boost the production of packing and speciality papers at its Somerset Mill is the largest. 

The company has consistently invested in its mill, which is one of its premier facilities in the country, and the move is driven by market demand, Hewett said.

The same is true for New Balance, which wants to spend an estimated $65 million to expand its operations with a 120,000-square-foot addition to its factory that would bring 200 jobs to Skowhegan.

“They have tremendous demand for their products right now,” Hewett said. “We’ve been talking about this project for at least 15 years. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, and we’re hoping they can pull the trigger on that project.”

Other projects and their approximate costs include a new $75.4 million elementary school projected to open in August 2025 and a $1.6 million early childhood center; Maine Grains CEO Amber Lambke’s $15 million multi-use building project; a $10.5 million broadband expansion; an $8.5 million public safety building; $5.4 million affordable housing apartments on Mary Street; and four solar projects in different phases totaling a little more than $23 million.

Amber Lambke is among those investing millions in projects throughout Skowhegan over the next three years.
Amber Lambke, co-founder and president of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, with an Osttiroler Getreidemuehlen Green grist mill from Austria used to grind flour and oats for artisan breads and other food. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Grains

Hewett also noted projects such as Austin Associates’ $330,000 remodeling of its space on Madison Avenue and a $160,000 traffic study that is part of the Village Partnership Initiative. There are smaller projects in various stages around town not included in the $650 million and whose costs are unknown.

“We have worked very hard the past 20 years on trying to find ways to help businesses and grow demand for the area,” Hewett said, pointing out walking trails along the Kennebec River as an example of a project benefitting residents.

Town Manager Christine Almand and Select Board member Steve Govoni, who is president and senior project engineer at Wentworth Partners & Associates, have noticed more people with connections to Skowhegan are returning home, which could be a factor in the investment. Some are newcomers interested in starting businesses or remodeling spaces, they said.

“Our well-educated kids are coming home,” Govoni said. “They’ve been in the cities, they’ve worked in the cities and it’s not where they want to raise their families. They’re seeing a depressed community here, and they’re not accepting that.”

Skowhegan’s population hasn’t grown much in the last 10 years, according to U.S. census data. But Govoni and Almand pointed to Kristina Cannon, Main Street Skowhegan’s executive director, and Sam Hight, who owns Hight Ford in Skowhegan and Hight Chevrolet in Farmington, among others who moved back to Skowhegan and brought energy to large projects.

Skowhegan will see $650 million in new investment over the next three years.
Skowhegan will see $650 million in new investment over the next three years. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

Hailey Howard started as the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce’s new executive director this month. She grew up in town and graduated from Skowhegan Area High School in 2013, moved away for college and job opportunities, and returned in 2018.

It’s refreshing to see a core group of people from ages 20s to 40s working together to improve Skowhegan, which has been lacking in recent years, Govoni said. Now Skowhegan has vibrancy, and is beginning to reach the rewards of long-discussed projects, he said.

For example, Brad Moll, who owns Brickyard Hollow Brewing Co. with locations in southern Maine, is a Skowhegan native who decided to open a restaurant in his hometown. The business there previously was open only a few days per week, Hewett said, but now it operates seven days and has created jobs.

“We have a lot of key anchor businesses here,” Almand said, referring to Sappi, New Balance and Redington-Fairview General Hospital. “But also that energy moving into the future.”

New Balance has announced plans to invest $65 million in its Skowhegan factory.
The New Balance factory store on Walnut Street in Skowhegan is seen in this July 5, 2022, file photo. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

Town officials also are thinking about how to ensure that a range of projects and revitalization efforts harmonize in the coming years. For example, there were discussions with the Maine Department of Transportation about building a second bridge in town, but local leaders asked the agency to take a step back and look at projects more comprehensively, Almand said.

The town is working with a consultant on the Village Partnership Initiative to study vehicle and pedestrian movement and riverfront development, in hopes of acquiring federal funds to make improvements, she said.

“You need to consider not just the project, but everything happening around it,” Hewett said, pointing to parking and traffic patterns. “You don’t want to waste your funding and public support.”

Skowhegan has a rich past, and it’s challenging to compare today’s investments to a particular timeframe throughout history, several people involved with the History House said.

From about the 1860s to 1930 was a crucial period of growth and industrialization for the town, Burnham said. The world operated differently and projects didn’t cost what they do now, but that was a vital time of building infrastructure and other advancements, he said.

In Almand’s eight years as town manager, she has never seen such a shift in Skowhegan, and longtime residents have told her the same.

“It’s definitely unprecedented, in my lifetime, to see the amount of progress that Skowhegan is making right now,” she said.