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A recent story in the Bangor Daily News touted $650 million in investments that are slated for the central Maine town of Skowhegan. Town and economic leaders have made clear that the investments in Skowhegan are the result of years — decades, in some cases — of planning and persistence in the face of economic adversity.
Skowhegan, a community of about 8,600 people on the Kennebec River in Somerset County, is expected to see $650 million worth of investments in the next three years, the BDN reported. The bulk of that investment — $418 million — is money that Sappi plans to put into its Somerset Mill. The mill makes packaging and specialty papers. Demand for these products has surged, and production at the mill will increase significantly with the planned investments.
Another major employer, New Balance, plans 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.
Last month, the town and Consolidated Communications were awarded nearly $9 million by the Maine Connectivity Authority to expand broadband access to Skowhegan and the neighboring communities of Canaan, Cornville and part of Madison. It was the authority’s largest grant.
What lessons does Skowhegan offer to other communities that are working to grow their economies and populations?
Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, offered three general pieces of advice. One is to have a lot of people involved, “not just the core group that does everything,” he told the BDN editorial board. You need lots of people with lots of ideas and energy to carry visions and projects to fruition.
Number two is to have many visions and plans, to see how they interact and overlap and to be flexible when one thing doesn’t work out.
Perhaps the most important thing is patience and perseverance.
“You’ve got to be in this for the long haul,” Hewett said. “You’re going to have years when nothing happens, and then there will be times when it seems everything is happening.”
Hailey Howard, the executive director of the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce echoed many of these points, especially the need to have lots of people — with varying perspectives — involved in economic development work. “It is important to hear different opinions,” she said, even the opinions of those who may oppose some projects or who don’t want to see changes in their community.
Howard also emphasized that pursuing a mix of small and large projects is critical because success on the smaller projects can sustain momentum toward larger goals, which can take years to come to fruition.
Hewett pointed out how the installation of streetlights and construction of parking spaces in town has been tied in with the development of recreational trails that are part of a larger riverfront park project that is gaining momentum.
Howard grew up in Skowhegan and left the region for college and the state for graduate school. However, she said, she always knew she’d be back.
“I believe in this community,” she said, adding that she believes a lot more growth can happen, which will make the town even more inviting for young people.
“It feels good, as someone who grew up here, to be involved in the change that is happening,” Howard said.
There is no simple answer to small town economic development, and sadly, Skowhegan suffered a loss this week with a fire at a production facility for Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, which is headquartered in the town. But even when there are challenges and loss, recent success in securing some big investments in the Skowhegan area offers hope and a roadmap that other communities may follow.