January 12, 2017; Bangor Daily News
Ownership of the Great Northern Paper Mill building has been transferred for $1 to a small nonprofit made up of local New Hampshire residents intent on building the local economy in a way that’s under the control of the town of Millinocket. The site was previously owned by what is described here as a “controversial New Hampshire based hedge fund.” The mill comes at a cost, of course. There is $1.5 million in tax liability connected to the site.
Millinocket, a tiny town with a population that hovers around 5,000, was established as a lumber colony in the early 1900s. If you Google it, the Internet currently pegs the town as a meals, supplies, and lodging hub for those visiting Baxter State Park, which boasts the highest peak in Maine, Mount Katahdin. For years, the centerpiece of the town was the Great Northern Paper Company. An economic engine for the town, it provided generations of residents with job security and a wage decent enough to raise a family on, no college education needed. Those days, fueled by felled trees heading into the paper mill, are long gone for Millinocket. The mill was shuttered in 2008, and a controversial New Hampshire organization moved in to scrap the site. The town’s hardship was visible in a series of articles in the Portland Press Herald that chronicled the demise of the once-proud community.
When a 2014 New York Times article described area residents as stranded, a Virginia-based nonprofit, CZB Associates, a national community development organization specializing in distressed neighborhoods, visited Maine to see if they could help identify options for the foundering community. They then delivered a critical nine-page open letter to the town, challenging the community to embrace beatification initiatives, consolidate schools, and—ahem, work on their attitudes about themselves and dreaded outsiders. The work was pro bono and pretty much immediately shelved.
Meanwhile, a half-dozen locals formed Our Katahdin, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the area to glory through supporting small win community development projects. One of the keys to the group’s success could be that the group is local. Our Katahdin’s treasurer, Nancy DeWitt, not only graduated from the local Millinocket high school in 1967, her first job was with Great Northern Paper Company. The group had a string of small and steady successes, and has started out 2017 with a bold move: It has acquired the abandoned paper mill site, with designs on making it the centerpiece in the economic comeback story of a lifetime.
The group also has the support of the city officials. The Bangor Daily News reported that the town council unanimously voted to allow Our Katahdin to assume responsibility for the site of the paper mill and the approximately $1.5 million in tax liability Cate Street creations GNP Holding II LLC and GNP West Inc. (who had possession of the site) owe the IRS and the town.
While the move is bold, Our Katahdin and the city have been careful not to make empty promises. Sean DeWitt, director at the World Resources Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit economic development organization, is heading up Our Katahdin, which will look to open the area up to revitalization through repurposing.
Council Chairman Michael Madore told reporters, “We have had inquiries from entities that are interested in developing the site. We have things warming up in the bullpen.”—Carrie Collins-Fadell