PRESQUE ISLE — After several years of suffering an economic slump, Aroostook County enjoyed an uplift of sorts during 1997.
From a three-day rock concert that poured about $25 million into the local economy to news of two telemarketing firms moving into the region and two potato processing facilities opening, Aroostook County’s future appears brighter as the 21st century approaches.
During the past year, The County endured its share of bad news, too, with the unsolved mystery of what happened to a 70-year-old Caribou hunter who was never found after he apparently became lost in the Garfield area, and the apparent suicide of the Fort Kent town office manager who appears to have embezzled more than half a million dollars of town funds.
In a County courtroom, a Canadian man was found guilty of manslaughter in the drowning death of his college classmate. For a week, the Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou was filled with the family and friends of both the defendant and the victim who listened to testimony in the case.
On the economic front
One of the biggest County stories was the three-day Phish concert at Loring Commerce Centre in August. The alternative-rock band drew 70,000 fans from almost every state in the country, including Alaska, for the outdoor festival held on Loring’s runways.
Organizers estimated that the concert had an economic impact of at least $25 million on the local economy. Talks are proceeding regarding a possible repeat performance during 1998.
The reuse of the former Loring Air Force Base is continuing with the anticipated opening of a telemarketing call center in April. The SITEL Corp., based in Omaha, Nebraska, announced its plans in November to employ about 350 people.
History was made at Loring earlier last year when the Loring Development Authority of Maine took title to 3,700 acres and about 300 buildings. Actually owning the property will enable the LDA to offer long-term leases to potential clients in the agency’s effort to redevelop the former B-52 bomber base.
This summer, the Loring Job Corps held its grand opening ceremonies. The facility located on the Loring base serves almost 400 students and employs about 130 people.
In October, credit card giant MBNA announced its plans to open a call center in Presque Isle, offering about 300 jobs when they begin operating later this year.
In November a potato processing plant opened in Mars Hill, giving Aroostook County farmers another outlet for the produce. Naturally Potatoes is expected to employ up to 100 people and annually use the potatoes from 10,000 acres.
Another food processing plant, Atlantic Custom Processors Limited, plans to produce specialty products made from potatoes. About 90 people are expected to find work at the Fort Fairfield facility, formerly known as the Interstate Food Processing plant.
While County residents embraced the announcements of call centers and processing plants, the idea of a large pig farm was thoroughly rejected. In February, a Quebec pork producer, NAP Breton Inc., withdrew plans to raise thousands of pigs at a time in the Cross Lake area in the St. John Valley.
In October, voters in New Sweden decided to set a moratorium on industrial and commercial development in an effort to discourage Breton from buying land and setting up a pig feed lot on Route 161, a main highway in the town.
Crime and the courts
Aroostook County also has seen its share of crime and trials during 1997.
In May, a former County probation officer was found not guilty of stealing from probationers $8,900 that was to be forwarded to the state as fines and restitution money.
Probation officers and probationers testified against Francis “Frank” Witts of Stockholm during the five-day Aroostook County Superior Court trial in Caribou. Witts, however, claimed that he was the victim of a “sloppy” accounting system in the probation district.
Also in May, Marilyn Deschaine, Fort Kent town office manager, apparently jumped to her death from the Fish River Bridge in Fort Kent. Her death came two days after municipal employees were told that there was a discrepancy in the town books.
A later audit determined that $509,000 was missing from excise taxes collected from 1990 to 1997.
In July all eyes focused on Mars Hill as scores of police used dogs and aircraft to search for two Michigan teenagers who shot at a state trooper in Bridgewater. Police searched 17 hours for Aaron T. Kinzel, 18, and Melissa May, 15, in swampy, wooded area before the pair walked out and unintentionally attempted to hitch a ride from a trooper driving an unmarked car.
Charged with attempted murder, Kinzel is in the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton awaiting trial. May was returned to Michigan.
In November Dean Michaud of Clair, New Brunswick, was convicted of the 1996 drowning death of his college classmate, Thomas Maki of East Bridgewater, Mass. Michaud and Maki were students at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Investigators claim that Michaud and Maki were fighting over the affections of a young woman on the banks of the St. John River in Frenchville, and Michaud held his victim under water until Maki drowned.
Michaud will be sentenced Monday in Aroostook County Superior Court for manslaughter.
Years of rumors and speculation ended in late November when two sets of human remains found in August in Masardis were identified as those of Joseph Savitch of Swansea, Mass., and Louis Alexander of Somerset, Mass. Both men, in their 50s, had been shot.
The pair, last seen alive in 1994, were among four men indicted that year for a string of 30 burglaries in at least nine County towns in 1992-1993. The property they allegedly took was valued at about $1 million.
Tragedy and transportation
In May, the body of Randy Taggett of St. Francis was found after a 10-day search in the St. Francis and St. John rivers. Taggett drowned after a boating accident with his brother, Frank Taggett, on the St. Francis River.
An intense search in November failed to locate a hunter who became lost near Garfield Plantation while hunting with family members. Despite the efforts of dozens of game wardens and hundreds of volunteers, Robert Smith, 70, of Caribou was never found.
The search, which also utilized airplanes, helicopters and dogs, was one of the most intense in recent history in the state.
Route 11 was in the news all year as a committee that was organized to upgrade the state highway to handle larger trucks made significant strides toward that goal.
The committee was able to secure a commitment of $8 million in funding for the upgrade project, half the amount needed to fix the road. Parts of the highway have not been rebuilt since 1912.
In the meantime, a new plan for posting the road with weight restriction was agreed to by the state and truckers who use it. Truck drivers will know when they can’t use the road because it is posted with weight restrictions; they will thus avoid fines.
In September, Brenda Commander, 39, made history when she became the first woman to be elected chief of the 550-member Houlton band of Maliseets. Married and the mother of three, she said after her election that one of her goals was to “create a stable, structured government, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.”
The issue of Houlton trash disposal was finally put to rest in October after a U.S. District Court judge declined to issue a temporary restraining order to halt implementation of the town’s new trash-disposal ordinance. The townspeople had voted to implement the ordinance which gives one trash collector the exclusive contract to haul residential waste.
An 11-year effort by school officials in SAD 25 to consolidate six district schools into two suffered a setback in December when voters in Patten reversed their previous decision to close two elementary schools there.
The Grant Memorial United Methodist Church in Presque Isle moved into a new sanctuary in December 1997 after two years of holding services in other churches. The church, nearly a century old, was destroyed two years ago by a fire set by two Presque Isle men.
In the fall of 1997, Vernon Easler, 22, was ordered to serve nine years in prison, while Christopher Mills, 22, was sent to prison for eight years for burning the church.