January 13, 2017

‘It’s our heritage’: Our Katahdin volunteers get to work promoting Millinocket

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The directors of the Our Katahdin economic development group thought they might get a breather on Friday after buying the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill site.

But they didn’t.

Not 24 hours after announcing the purchase of the legendary mill site for $1 from Cate Street Capital, Our Katahdin’s leaders received phone calls from several “reputable business investors” on Friday seeking meetings. They were inundated with ideas from town residents, announced the hiring of their nonprofit organization’s first full-time employee and met with representatives from several manufacturing companies, according to Our Katahdin President Sean DeWitt.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Michael Osborne, Our Katahdin’s vice president of industrial operations.

But in a good way, he added.

Speaking during a tour of the 1,400-acre industrial park on Friday, Our Katahdin principals DeWitt, Osborne, Michael Faloon and Tony Foster faced an irony. Our Katahdin, the 40-somethings said, was formed to take on small projects in the Katahdin region and only grew into an organization charged with revitalizing Millinocket’s historical industrial home.

The mill, they said, was the thing they had spent more than 20 years working to get away from.

“We’ve all come from generations of Millinocket paper mill workers,” said Faloon, Boston-based chief operating officer for Standish Mellon Asset Management, which manages more than $150 billion in fixed income assets. “Our parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents worked in the mills here. We all graduated in 1993 or ’95 or whatever and left because we saw the writing on the wall.”

“We were the first generation to break away,” said DeWitt, a director at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works to create investments that combine economic opportunities and natural resources. “There was just no opportunity at the mills for us any more.”

“For us, it was college or something else,” said Osborne, who is the most locally-based Our Katahdin vice president.

A water resource manager for Brookfield Renewable Energy Group of Millinocket, Osborne handles 182 megawatts of hydroelectric generation on the Penobscot and Union rivers.

The purchase of the mill site — facilitated largely by the four men’s communications by phone and internet and their occasional visits home — drew accolades from the state’s federal delegation and local leaders.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin said in a joint statement that the purchase would “help relieve the town of a burden that it has had to bear for far too long, and it will finally allow innovators and entrepreneurs to come together, collaborate, and build a better, brighter future for the region.

“We commend Our Katahdin on this announcement and pledge to work with them in any way we can to support continued economic growth throughout the region,” Collins, King and Poliquin said.

Accolades poured into Our Katahdin’s Facebook page.

Gail Fanjoy, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, said Our Katahdin’s purchase signaled the birth of “a new and glorious day.”

“The dark cloud hanging over our community called Cate Street has lifted,” Fanjoy said.

Cate Street purchased the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mill sites for $1 in 2011, promising to revitalize the region’s paper industry, launch a pellet mill and turn the Katahdin Avenue mill site into an industrial park. None of that happened, and the company owed about $1.5 million in federal and local taxes before the sale.

As part of the purchase agreement, Our Katahdin has accepted the liability and must pay or negotiate a settlement on the back taxes.

The group’s most immediate challenges are to start collating the ideas pouring in, continue meeting with potential investors, and help local officials shape an economic development plan for the industrial park and the region while starting federal and local grant applications.

Group members also are meeting with other local nonprofit economic development organizations to help coordinate or just support other groups’ efforts, said DeWitt, who encouraged anyone with investment ideas or capital to visit OurKatahdin.com.

Our Katahdin will continue to sell bonds and raise funds through internet-based crowdsourcing, DeWitt said. The group’s revenue was just over $100,000 in 2016. Its members also want to work with former mill workers to understand the site’s history and any environmental cleanup issues it might have. The site has some good buildings, but all need work to be made turnkey-ready.

Its members are happy to consider any form of development, but they say that anyone who expects a single, large-scale development such as a paper mill to return to the mill site probably will be disappointed.

A more realistic goal: To turn the industrial site into a manufacturing and research industrial park for a dozen businesses focusing on bio-based, outdoor recreational and digital manufacturing or research that would employ a few dozen workers each.

The site’s ready access to rail lines, hydropower and the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi River make it an ideal place for next-gen forest product manufacturing, DeWitt said. The site also has a 45 million-gallon water treatment facility.

Drawing businesses to the site could take many years, Faloon said.

“We have to be careful about making promises to people,” Faloon said. “So many have been made before by others, and they weren’t kept. We don’t want to do that.”

Our Katahdin’s first hire, 33-year-old Lucy van Hook of Millinocket, will be a day-to-day organizational representative in the region and coordinate the group’s efforts with other economic development organizations as its community development manager.

Helping revitalize their hometown, DeWitt said, is more than just a challenge.

“I don’t know that we felt we had a choice,” DeWitt said. “This is our home. It’s our heritage.”