The Katahdin region already has a dream team. It just needs to grow

If I weren’t allergic to eggs, I would have submitted this post with a picture of myself with real egg on my face, just for effect. But I am, so I’ll just start by saying I have hypoallergenic, figurative egg on my face.

I’ve done a few posts on the national park debate in the Katahdin region. In them I’ve been blathering about the idea of an economic revitalization dream team. Well, thanks to a thoughtful reader, I now know there is one. It’s relatively new, and it rocks! And it wants to grow and have an all-inclusive approach.

Our Katadhin “is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization working to promote community and economic development in the Katahdin region.”

A black bear stands in the middle of a road off of the Golden Road in Millinocket. (Brian Feulner | BDN)

A black bear stands in the middle of a road off of the Golden Road in Millinocket. (Brian Feulner | BDN)

In existence since late December 2014, its board is comprised of people who are tremendously proud of their roots in the region: Sean DeWitt, director at the World Resources Institute; Nancy DeWitt, who began her career at Great Northern Paper Company and went on to own and operate businesses in the region; Mike Faloon, chief operating officer for Standish Mellon Asset Management; Tony Foster, senior programmer/analyst at L.L. Bean; and Michael Seile Jr., general manager of Continuous Improvement at Somic America Inc.

The board members bring a unique background to the organization built around their shared love for the region and desire to see it flourish again. DeWitt best captures the origin and essence of Our Katahdin in a quote from the website:

“I’ve been involved in innovation and economic development for most of my career, and have found the most common ingredient for success to be the extent to which people are willing to pull together to make things happen. The chances of success increase dramatically. This is why we started Our Katahdin. We need to come together as a region, and we need to build stronger connections with people from the region who have moved away for various reasons, but still love the region. There is so much that can be if we band together and begin to pool our ideas, money and time to make things happen.”

The website refers to Our Katahdin as “an experiment” whose focus is three-fold: community development, entrepreneur development and industry development. The intention of the board is that Our Katahdin can serve as “the connector — pulling together ideas, people and money to move our community forward.”

I spoke with Mike Faloon, and my predominant response is “wow!” I’m not kidding. I actually thought “wow” so many times during our conversation that I have the word scribbled on the side of a page of notes with an exclamation point.

Faloon speaks of the organization with a level of excitement that is rare. At its inception, the team decided to start with small-scale projects and have funded nine to date. The list of projects includes the 2015 East Millinocket Summer Fest (just happened) and the Katahdin Area Communal Gardens at Rice Farm.

Faloon said these early small projects enabled the organization to get its footing and generate interest among people living in the region. The website includes a page where folks can contribute ideas and vote for ideas others have suggested. He emphasized the importance of creating an environment that allowed the people of the region to take ownership of its revitalization.

Faloon said creating such an environment will help establish a new mindset in the wake of all the mill closures. “No one entity is going to save us,” he said; thus the board desires “to tap into that Yankee ingenuity” to help the region save itself.

He spoke of a safe space for people to voice ideas, take risks, make decisions, succeed and even fail sometimes, which is a natural part of economic growth. As the nature of the projects grow in proportion, the team wants the sense of homegrown ownership of the the region’s economy to continue to be the heartbeat of the organization.

In terms of industry development, the group currently targets forest products, outdoor recreation, and the digital economy, and is working with the Maine Community Foundation and Eastern Maine Community College on incubator projects. Faloon also mentioned two larger pending projects that the group is excited about but not quite ready to promote yet. One involves the three communities of Medway, Millinocket and East Millinocket.

Our Katahdin exists quite separately from the national park debate and takes no position on it, which Faloon says is purposeful, as the debate can be a distraction. He, like so many others from the region, lamented on a personal level how divisive an issue the debate had become. Staying out of the debate allows the organization to work to bring people together to rebuild their communities.

Downeast Magazine recently named Our Katahdin the best “By the bootstraps community reinvention,” and I can see why. Our Katahdin is a dream team but also a team with a dream — a dream to foster the kind of revitalization that, as Faloon puts it, “sends a cohesive message to the rest of the world” about what the region has to offer.

It’s a team that’s developing rapidly, looking for new participants, and full of the kind of hope and potential the region and our whole state needs.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.