Dear Millinocket

A view into Maine’s most struggling mill town, and how hope is essential.

By Brian Kevin
Photo by Mark Fleming
[I]n August of last year, Charles Buki read a New York Times article describing Millinocket’s decline in the absence of the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill, which once drove the town’s economy. Buki — who was raised in New Jersey and spent childhood summers in Damariscotta — is president of the Virginia-based planning firm CZB, a team of community and economic development consultants. Prompted by his fond memories of Maine and his firm’s affiliation with the philanthropic 1% for the Planet initiative, he contacted Millinocket’s town leadership and offered CZB’s services pro bono, to help craft a strategy to guide Millinocket in addressing its lack of economic opportunity and dwindling population (expected to drop from 4,500 to around 2,500 in the next 10 or 15 years).

The town accepted, and in October, Buki and a colleague visited to conduct interviews, tours, and focus groups. CZB circulated a survey about townspeople’s attitudes towards Millinocket’s present and future, and an analyst crunched census and fiscal data to identify demographic and economic trends.

The result is a fairly remarkable document, a nine-page open letter to the town, published in January, urging Millinocket to raise taxes, invest in beautification, shrink its footprint, embrace public land ownership, and court young cultural creatives, among other things. The letter stands out for its frank declarations that no smart politician would make — that “the days of good jobs with little education are over,” that Millinocket harbors a “generally negative attitude towards outsiders,” and that “you have to invest in yourselves, because if you don’t, no one else will, and nor should they.”

Though the ultimate message is one of empowerment, CZB’s letter reads a bit like a manifesto — galvanizing to some (the Portland Press Herald declared that its prescriptions “could have just as easily been applied to the whole state of Maine”), scurrilous to others (a “harsh assessment,” sniffed the Bangor Daily News). We talked to Buki about his motivation, reception, and conclusions.

The following Q&A is an expanded version of the article “Dear Millinocket” in our April 2015 issue, though it is still an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

So the midcoast Maine you remember from childhood was pretty idyllic?
It was, although if I have enough objectivity to actually pause on my nostalgic recollection of Damariscotta, I remember, for example, the tougher Laundromat behind the creek there and some of the tougher interior places. When I actually play back the tape, I think about the challenges to the [Bath] Iron Works and, once you get off the coast, some of the tougher things, especially some of the Native American communities. I remembered some of those things, and I thought, it would be really lousy of me to read an article like [the New York Times’ Millinocket story] and not take two seconds to think about it. That was pretty much it.

How do you describe the nature of your job?
We try to make struggling places more competitive and more successful, and we try to make places that are doing really well more equitable. Take an Erie, Pennyslvania, or Saginaw, Michigan — those places are on their knees. So how do we intervene in their economy, housing systems, neighborhood systems, planning systems, so that they can get right with the demands of an economy for which their physical infrastructure simply isn’t aligned?

Are people in such towns usually receptive?
One of the challenges of my job is that we’re really good at seeing patterns, especially in the form of trends, but you also confront a frustration in every client city, which is that until things are so bad, it’s very difficult to mobilize folks. Yet if you can mobilize them before the town hits bottom, every dollar you spend gets spent much more efficiently, with a much faster rate of return. So you want to catch folks before they fall all the way down. The paradox is that you can rarely mobilize a community to do the work, to do the 180, until they hit bottom.

I look at it as pissed-off, humiliated, smart, and incredibly engaged people.

But hope keeps towns from recognizing the severity of their downward trends? Hope that the mills will come back, for example?
Part of it is hope, but part of it is also something more insidious, and it comingles with hope, making a very sort of funky cocktail. The truth is that it’s a very rare instance where we tell a community what they don’t know. Usually they know it, they just really don’t want to come to terms with it. People crave authenticity until authenticity requires them to work. They crave a representative on a town board or in the state house who will “call it like it is.” But as soon as someone does, they’ll hose him or her out of office, because calling it like it is requires people to change what they’re doing.

Where do you see Millinocket heading, without that change?
I think Millinocket is pretty close to where you don’t have a critical mass of people capable of making trade-off decisions, capable of creating disappointment and living with it in order to serve a larger aim. If you don’t have that, you’re close to the point where the cost of running the town will outstrip any capacity to raise revenues to maintain it.

But you don’t suppose the town has reached that point already, that it’s time to give up?
I do not. The reasons I don’t are, for example, that you have a guy named Matt Polstein [of the New England Outdoor Center] who is actually putting money in, and what he’s creating is in the right color and the right language. You have this guy Tom Shafer [of Maine Heritage Timber] who’s doing just incredibly interesting things with river exploration for sunken wood and marketing what he pulls up. Parts of central Pennyslvania, parts of the Deep South, parts of the Southwest are littered with Millinockets that do not have a Matt or a Tom. These guys represent the intellectual capital, creativity, willingness, and risk-taking verve to build something around.

How did the town respond to CZB’s inquiries?
Responses to the survey exceeded our expectations by leaps and bounds. My experience is that you almost never exceed 1% of a community participating in any meaningful way. We put out a survey that was astronomically time-consuming, and around 600 people responded [around 13% of Millinocket citizens]. And it wasn’t just volume; these were quality responses.

So the easy and wrong thing to assume is that this is an interior community full of disengaged, pissed-off, illiterate people. Absolutely not the case. I look at it as pissed-off, humiliated, smart, and incredibly engaged people. When we visited, we had six or seven small focus groups, had an opportunity to look at the industrial sites and housing parcels. And for as much vitriol that encircled the conversation at the periphery, we were treated with remarkable grace.

The truth is that it’s a very rare instance where we tell a community what they don’t know.

And yet the letter also warns Millinocket against being “uncharitable to hikers and environmentalists, or . . . anyone not local.” Where did that sense come from?
It was several things. Online conversations are always dominated by hobbits and trolls who hate everything. You read that and you have to take it with a grain of salt, but that’s a piece of it. I got a fair amount of hate mail both before and after, ugly things. Very much sort of an insider/outsider thing — “how dare you?” and that. You could sense in my conversations some real angst — if the messenger is wearing a North Face hat, I don’t want to hear what they have to say. And in the surveys, the survey narrative includes a fair amount of that.

And finally, at the Appalachian Trail Café, I sat in there for about three hours, just taking notes, and I watched people come and go and tried to eavesdrop on some conversation. There were a lot of folks who hadn’t had a shower in three days, coming in from hiking, and they’re being treated really well in there. But I’m overhearing them talk about how they’re not sure if they feel quite as welcome elsewhere in town. So there’s that sense.

But that is not unique to Millinocket. It’s common to places that are in a period of stressful transition, where outsiders serve as three-dimensional reminders of the change they’re going to have to embrace, and that might scare them. So the bearded 26-year-old with an REI canteen, he just looks like a future that doesn’t include them.

You write that your team “sat down a dozen times to try and write a strategy for Millinocket,” but kept falling short. What makes this town a particular challenge?
Distance is a major issue here. In a perfect imperfect world, Millinocket would be down on its knees, but 10 miles away would be a place doing well, and people who couldn’t afford that place would go to Millinocket and commute, raising up Millinocket. But Millinocket is neither surrounded by places doing well, nor close to a large market.

Also, every industry has an intellectual core — for instance, folks who operate certain types of machinery or have a particularly intimate knowledge of the local landscape. That knowledge, if not exploited, systematized, and turned into something, it dissipates. People move and take their expertise with them. In Millinocket, most of that expertise has gone away.

An additional hurdle is the very extraction-oriented way of approaching both the location and the natural resources there. It’s just not a sense of continual and adaptive reuse — it’s rather: extract, burn, and walk away, because there’s more 5 or 10 miles away. Like old mining communities in the Southwest. The community’s collective imagination about how else to use the million acres between it and Katahdin is stunted.

One of the recommendations CZB put forward is to sell blighted properties to “young, entrepreneurial, and when possible artist and artisan households from across the country who want to come to the Maine interior and establish themselves.” Why that population? Why not, say, wealthy retirees? Or middle-income families?
What we’re trying to do is capture the energy and potential to create and give back that you will find in a younger household more than in an older household. By no means would I say no to a spirited 75-year-old! It’s not about saying no to one group. It’s really saying, let’s figure out this other group. If I was Millinocket’s mayor, I’d call the Dean of Johnson & Wales University, the culinary school in Rhode Island, and I’d say, “There’s real estate space and a house for anybody who wants to set up shop.” Or I’d call the Rhode Island School of Design or Parsons School of Design, and I’d say, “There’s studio space, gallery space, and a house for you — just have to have your portfolio, your bona fides, and give us five years.” They should be doing whatever they can to give it away to a corps of folks with a capacity for civic engagement and for the probability of energy and entrepreneurial drive.

What places like Millinocket really need is a willingness to experiment. Experimenting means trial and error, and half of that is error. That means failure. So you need people who are okay falling on their face and getting back up, and that’s young people.

Experimenting means trial and error, and half of that is error. That means failure.

Northern Maine has a long tradition of private land ownership with public access. Your open letter recommends shifting the land ownership model, so that a larger percentage of land around Millinocket is in public trust rather than private hands. How would this help the town?
First and foremost, from a market point of view, is the law of supply and demand. If I’ve got a million acres that can’t be developed in any way, shape, or form, then the adjoining land becomes more valuable. You want the land to be more expensive to be able to drive an expectation of getting a return on that land.

But what about those young artisans?
Well, it’s a both/and — there’s a little bit of nuance here. Let’s separate land in town from land outside of town. The land that surrounds the town, if it’s all private land now, and it’s in such excess that land is effectively priced close to zero, except for the cash flow I get from extraction — if I take three-quarters of that off the table, then what’s left grows in value. It changes the math for an extraction economy. Do I extract? Do I build a hotel on it?

In town, over time, if I’m a gateway town [for recreation on public lands], then land will also go up, but it will take time for that to happen.

The larger argument for Millinocket and the Maine interior is why, outside of town, it’s a good idea to take out of play millions of acres. Scarcity drives value, so you always want to pursue a strategy of scarcity. When you have higher values, it will trigger ingenuity. As long as value is low, all I have to do is have the stupidest idea take hold. Go cut down things and take them out. If value is high, it’s like Costa Rica. Or look at the Wasatch Front outside of Salt Lake: massive amounts of public ownership driving scarcity. So now I’ve got future value, I’ve got development rights. Those rights have cash value, which can be borrowed against, leveraged; it can show up in all sorts of ways.

So you’re saying it’s not actually about creating more recreation access, it’s about ownership patterns changing the way people think about how to develop?
Yes, and in truth, you have much greater risk of limited access through private ownership. So if you want to transform the Maine economy, and I don’t mean to be glib, but you take the Maine interior, and you create national parks. You have designated recreational access at a very high level for those spaces, and then you watch the value of the remaining private land go through the roof.

Your letter is bracingly forthright about the end of a certain kind of model: “For too long our country has rested on its laurels, content to ride the waves that earlier generations worked so hard to create.” “Jobs that pay a wage sufficient to buy a home and raise a family are never again going to be available for anyone with only a high school diploma.” “Millinocket has not invested in itself in any meaningful way in more than five decades. It has relied on employers to do so . . . those days are over.” Are big-picture proclamations like these typical of CZB’s reports?
Well, I have the freedom to say some of that in Millinocket because they’re not paying me. But it’s also the case, to level with you, that I’m kind of fed up. I’m spending a lot of time in southern Michigan, in western Pennsylvania, western New York. And what you see in Millinocket certainly has unique qualities, specific to Millinocket, the paper industry, or the Maine interior, but there are some generalizable issues here. One is a mounting sense of frustration that at least a few of the post-war generations that preceded mine have handed mine and generations to come a big bucket of crap to deal with. If I were to summarize what that bucket looks like, it’s that we’ve become really comfortable with private gain at public expense, with my gain at your expense. That form of cost-shifting is everywhere. It’s in the form of folks who made a ton of money in, say, Cleveland, and left tens of thousands of parcels in need of environmental remediation for taxpayers in Kansas to fix, through federal EPA clean-up requirements.

So this idea, that you have to have skin in the game and say enough is enough, that I’m going to own it and clean it up myself, I think that’s a big part of bottoming out.