By: Maura Adams
The Magic City – the City that Trees Built – Lumber Capital of the World. These historic slogans from the region’s prominent mill towns declared their strength and connection to the forests that fed them. They took pride in being the biggest and best at what they did. We know time has brought myriad changes, but we believe the region’s communities can look to the future with hope of being strong again and celebrating their forest roots.
For over 20 years now, the Center has delivered programs to address broad, regionally-based forest economy issues. Recently we added another, very localized approach to our work: exploring ways for towns to capitalize on their forest assets to become energetic and lively—that is, vital—again.
We are especially interested in addressing a fundamental demographic challenge: the steady loss of young people, especially those between 25- to 45-years old, whose children will bring schools to life, new businesses, care for the elderly, participate in civic leadership, and more. We believe that to retain and attract this demographic for the region, we must pay attention to the conditions they need to satisfy their personal, familial and professional needs. These include affordable access to broadband, good schools and hospitals, social opportunities, outdoor recreation, and quality housing.
Over the past year, our foray into community revitalization has led us to three focal communities where we’re learning by testing different approaches. In each location, we’re partnering with local businesses and non-profits, gaining from their local knowledge and relationships, while providing our staff’s combined skills and experience in community development, the forest economy, and other projects across the region.
One of these communities is Lancaster, NH, a 3,500-person town on the Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire. A year ago, we conducted interviews with leaders in five northern New Hampshire communities to identify one that was eager to partner with us to deliver tangible community revitalization projects. With support from the town and members of the local business community, we convened an advisory group that identified a variety of projects. Our first projects mapped and brought new attention to Lancaster’s outdoor recreation assets, supported digital marketing training for local businesses, strengthened business coordination and communication, raised funds to establish a town-wide energy efficiency program, and more.
Adding our organizational capacity to Lancaster’s own, and leveraging new ideas and capital into the community have brought clear benefits to the town already—ones that will make the town more vibrant and more attractive to potential new residents.A second community revitalization effort focuses on Bethel, Rumford and South Paris (and Norway) in Western Maine. This regional effort, dubbed Maine West, is facilitated by the Center and includes diverse non-profit partners dedicated to addressing systemic rural challenges and enhancing community well-being. Through increased collaboration across the economic, education, health and conservation sectors, Maine West partners are implementing projects related to the following three key goals:
Active Communities: Launching a hiking challenge to get more area residents involved with outdoor recreation and supporting creation of a new Bethel Community Forest.
Broadband Access and Adoption: Implementing a state-sponsored broadband planning process that will benefit 27 local communities.
Educational Aspirations and Attainment: Exploring opportunities to strengthen links between schools, businesses, and communities.
Our work with Maine West has required we learn about new sectors—especially broadband and education—sectors that are highly complex but essential to overall community vitality.
For our third localized effort, we’re now deeply invested in Millinocket, Maine, which endured years of decline after its paper mill closed in 2008. But the last two years have put Millinocket on the upswing, with a new national monument (Katahdin Woods and Waters).
Small investments can make a big difference in a town like this. The Center secured grant funding to install a WiFi hotspot on Millinocket’s main street, provided digital marketing training for small tourism-related businesses, and more. We also learned that a lack of quality housing was hampering business development and community revitalization and we made a major commitment to invest in properties ourselves. Using impact investment capital, we’ve purchased five houses within walking distance of the downtown and have begun deep renovations on two of these properties. We aim to improve local housing options, revitalize neighborhoods, and motivate other owners to invest in their properties—all for the benefit of people who want to live and work in the community full-time.
We are using our initiatives in Lancaster, Maine West, and Millinocket to test multiple methods of community revitalization, and we’re learning every day. We are facilitating new conversations, making both small and large financial investments, bringing people from different sectors together, drawing attention to local recreational assets and helping to develop new ones, and more.
We look forward to helping the region’s communities regain historic strength and pride. Restoring vitality in Northern Forest towns is an exciting opportunity to build on our deep investments in wood heat, wood products manufacturing and destination development across the region. We’ll know we’ve made progress when there are more children in the schools, more businesses in downtowns, and a strong, vital connection between these communities and the forest that surrounds them.
We look forward to hearing about challenges and opportunities in your community and to sharing stories and lessons as these projects evolve!