PATTEN – On a clear day not many weeks ago, a person could stand on Ash Hill in Patten, look to the southwest and see a plume of steam rising up over the horizon from the Great Northern Paper Inc. mills 45 miles away.
The steam meant jobs for as many as 100 families in the Sherman-Patten area who worked at the mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket and jobs for scores more who cut, chipped and hauled wood for the mills.
The shutdown of the paper mills, coming less than four years after the closure of Sherman Lumber Co. in Stacyville, has residents in the Northern Katahdin Valley region worried.
“It’s a blow we didn’t need,” said Debra O’Roak, the Sherman town manager.
“We seemed to be able to absorb [Sherman Lumber closing],” she said Tuesday at her office in the former Sherman Elementary School. “I’m not so sure we will be able to absorb this.”
The sentiment was the same in other small towns along Route 11 that historically have relied on the wood-products industry for their survival.
The working Maine woods, for them, is working less and less.
“It’s serious,” said Charles Upton, executive director of the Upper Valley Economic Council, a coalition of Sherman, Stacyville, Patten and Mount Chase that works to promote economic development in the four-town region.
“In a market area this size, to lose that many jobs, compounded by the loss of jobs at Sherman Lumber, really causes a serious problem,” he said.
“The loss of secondary jobs will be very serious, too,” he continued. “Look at the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad for one example. And you’ve got truckers and cutters and chippers and all the folks they do business with.”
Stacyville, with fewer than 500 people, has been particularly hard hit because of the closure of Sherman Lumber and Great Northern. A bank last month announced that it was foreclosing on the lumber mill, putting the last dozen people out of work.
Nearly 100 people once worked there.
“I think people are scared,” Maryanne Guiggey, Stacyville’s town clerk, said Tuesday. From her office, she can see the idle Sherman Lumber mill.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “There are all sorts of rumors.”
Rumors on Tuesday ranged from one claiming that Gov. John Baldacci was coming to town to meet with people to another rumor that Irving and Fraser Paper were buying the GNP mills.
Other people expressed concern that smaller mills in the area might succumb to the weak economy, with the loss of even more jobs.
The lack of jobs in the region has been a problem for years. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the schools of SAD 25. In 1997 and 1998, the district closed four elementary schools.
Pupils were consolidated at the junior high school in Stacyville, which became Katahdin Elementary School. The junior high pupils were moved across Route 11 to Katahdin High School.
Gregory Cole, 53, the principal at the elementary school, has witnessed the changes firsthand. A lifelong resident of Patten, he recalled 20 years earlier when there were 44 pupils in his son’s kindergarten class in Patten alone. Now there are about two dozen in the entire district.
He also has seen the impact of the GNP shutdown on his family. His son moved back to Patten almost three years ago with his family to work as an electrical engineer for Great Northern. Now he is without a job and might have to go elsewhere to get work.
“There’s absolutely nothing here for young people, and we’re getting less and less,” Cole said Tuesday.
SAD 25 officials have been talking with their counterparts in nearby school districts about sharing services. If the Great Northern mills stay closed, sharing will become even more critical if small school districts are to survive more declines in enrollment.
“We’ve got to do something,” Cole said. “It can’t go on like this.”
Sharing also might be needed to help the towns survive. In Patten, Town Manager Rhonda Harvey also serves as town agent for Hersey and temporarily is helping Crystal, which is without a manager.
Preparing the town’s 2003 budget on Tuesday, she said “we’re going to be extra cautious.”
The potential loss of the Great Northern mills “is going to have a tremendous impact on the area economy,” she said. “It’s not something we can count on anymore [and], there’s nothing to pick up the slack.”
While the immediate impact on the Route 11 towns is not as dramatic as it is in Millinocket and East Millinocket, the past few weeks of the GNP shutdown is being felt there.
Jon Ellis, one of the owners of the Ellis Family Market in Patten, said he’s already had to cut back some employee hours at the store because of a drop in patronage. He also said a possible expansion of the store has been put on hold.
“We’re starting to feel some effect, but we won’t have the short-term effect,” he said, adding that the true impact for many of the businesses along Route 11 will be felt in the summer.
“If those mills go down, it opens up a whole can of worms,” he said.
With employment opportunities lacking and young people having to leave to find work, Sherman’s O’Roak wonders how the towns will survive.
Like Harvey and Guiggey, she, too, is preparing the next municipal budget for the town meeting in March.
“Our budget is bare bones now,” O’Roak said. “We’re looking at things we can put on hold.
“Everything’s on the table,” she said, “from this office to some of the requests for funding [from outside agencies] that we receive every year.
“I feel like we’re on the edge,” she said. “We could go either way.”