Sunday, April 24, 2011

Creative Economy

The huge paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket are quiet. Once the largest in the world, they have been shuttered, to the devastation of the local community and its tax base and its work force. The devastation they themselves produced - the clear-cutting, the chemicals, the noise - has in turn devastated the lives of the town people, perhaps forever. In the world of the mining of natural resources, one apparently lives and dies by the sword.

The towns are not sitting back and capitulating. Many people are trying still to save the mills, including US Rep. Mike Michaud, who grew up working there. The high school seeks to remain open by recruiting paying students from China. But most are hoping for succor from new sources of cash, from a more creative (so-called) economy. In this part of the Great North Woods, so close to Baxter State Park, gateway to 10 million acres of the Unorganized Territories, this is code for tourism.

Unfortunately, in most people's minds, a tourist is not a person particularly interested in local flora and fauna, or hiking, or beautiful vistas, or local history, or wilderness experiences, or even local people (except as "help"). A tourist these days is someone from the city who complements an hour or two of mental or physical exertion with utter luxury for the rest of the day. He wants a hotel with spas and lobbies and soft beds, a suitable collection of restaurants, and shopping if it rains; and if he does go out into the wilderness to see a loon or a moose, he wants a guide. This sad state of affairs is the same all over the world, from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar. Every city council, every tourist organization, every government produces the same plan - a luxury resort, or two, possibly with an "eco-center."

Judging by recent news reports, Millinocket seems to be no different. I would hope that Maine might be a little more creative in this transition from exploiting the land, for example, with real eco-tourism, or support for local arts and crafts, or sustainable farming. But as with Plum Creek on Moosehead Lake, and the Modena family's wish to develop the incredibly beautiful Schoodic Peninsula, the "quiet" side of Acadia National Park, Millinocket wants a quick fix to its troubles. Say a resort does get built. After a certain hoo-ha, after a few construction jobs, how will it really benefit the people? The jobs on offer will be mostly menial; the real money stays out-of-state. The tax base may increase; the people base does not. And who's to say people will actually come, when every other destination is offering the same formula? With better weather?

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