No one knows precisely what the potential sale of Bowater’s Millinocket mill means for the region, but anyone can see the direction we’re going in. Fewer jobs, fewer people, dying towns. How much more of a warning is needed before Maine’s leaders see that the northern half of the state is in real trouble?
Bowater’s offer for sale of the mill and its concurrent announcement of investment in its East Millinocket mill was not a surprise, but the news hurts nonetheless. The upgrade in East Millinocket will not result in increased capacity, just greater efficiency, which translates into fewer jobs. Approximately 800 people are employed by Bowater at the Millinocket facility, and though layoffs have yet to be made, these folks don’t have to get hit with a forklift to know what’s coming next.
Paper mill jobs have been declining in Maine for decades. More than 3,500 jobs have been lost in the industry during the last two decades, which now employs about 14,000 Mainers. The jobs will continue to fall and this half of the state will continue to decline unless significant investments in infrastructure and education are made. The region’s economy must become more diversified and better connected to the rest of the country. The eventual alternative: Parkland as far as the eye can see.
There’s no reason to let this happen, but nothing will stop the decline unless government leaders intervene. So far, the news is not good. The disparities in educational opportunities, north and south, are well documented. When Gov. Angus King had the good sense to propose prison-building Down East as a way to keep jobs, he was opposed, incredibly, by lawmakers from Southern Maine. Plans for an east-west highway across the middle of Maine are met with blank stares in Augusta.
Ambivalence toward the east-west highway, in fact, is a wonderful example of the double standard that exists here.
Compare the reaction to it with the support for widening the Maine Turnpike in Southern Maine. The Turnpike Authority and groups lobbying for it developed thousands of pages of documents detailing how widening a southern section of the turnpike would help Maine business and its economy. The King administration and legislators statewide were enthusiastic supporters of this vital plan. Voters, including those from Northern Maine, helped get the widening referendum approved. Now this region wants to use those same ideas to build economic development up here.
Thanks for your support, Augusta! Augusta? Anyone there?
Who knows what the market is for an aging mill that is badly in need of investment. There may be a few years left in the mill and Bowater may find a company willing to buy it. That won’t stop the decades-long trend toward chronic underemployment in the region; it merely would buy a little time before Maine faces the inevitable.