Small Towns Respond to Population Decline

(from Maine Townsman, March 2008)
By
Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Population declines in rural Maine are prompting a variety of creative responses.

Some towns that have never before been tourist destinations are trying their hand at attracting visitors. Island communities are trying to maintain their viability by recruiting teachers, residents, and even students from the mainland. Aroostook County communities are banding together to share services for a dispersed population. Still other communities have found opportunities in their natural resources. And a handful of towns have decided they don’t want to be towns anymore and have disbanded.

The population shrinkage is likely to continue. Some 196 towns in Maine are due to lose population this decade, according to Maine State Planning Office projections. The population losses will be felt across the state, even though Maine’s overall is projected to increase by 6.7 percent in the ten years ending in 2010, according to projections. Losses are projected to hit economically distressed communities such as Millinocket, Madawaska, Lubec and large swaths of eastern and northern Maine. They also projected to hit prosperous communities such as Damariscotta, Boothbay Harbor, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Portland as well as many of the rural suburbs around Augusta, such as Readfield, Sidney and Monmouth. Every county in Maine – with the exception of Waldo and York counties – contains at least one community due to lose population, according to the SPO projections.

One implications of this demographic shift is already evident in the ongoing closure of elementary schools, a trend that could well be facilitated by the consolidation of school districts now underway. But other consequences may emerge more slowly and quietly.

Maine State Economist Katherine Reilly says population loss in Maine is driven not chiefly by the flight of college-age youth, even though the “brain drain” has become accepted as conventional wisdom. The loss is driven more by the aging of Maine’s population, the state’s low birth rate and the relative absence of in-migration of immigrants with larger families, she said.

“It’s hard to separate population decline from population aging,” she said.

Reilly predicts the shifting demographics will put increasing pressure on the property tax since  income drops as people age but their property tax bills even with a circuit breaker program does not adjust according to income. The demographic shift may cause shifts in services, perhaps away from K-12 education and toward transportation assistance, she said.

To explore the implications of population decline, the Townsman interviewed people in small towns already experiencing decline. To be sure, it’s not pleasant to lose population. The real estate market sags, the tax burden gets a little heavier, elementary schools close, volunteerism wanes.

“The biggest problem you run into is with the work force,” said Jay Kamm, planning director for Northern Maine Development Corp. in Caribou. “It’s hard to attract even a medium-sized company when you have a declining population, especially working age population. We have a brain drain. Students that go on to college don’t come back because the wages typically don’t pay enough.”

But it’s not all bad news.

Tourism

The towns along the upper Kennebec River used to be resigned to the slow draining of population that accompanied the decline in logging, wood products and the paper mill in Winslow. Not anymore. A number of them are realizing that the natural beauty of the region – no longer obscured by a river choked with pulpwood – might just be their calling card. They’re  now trolling for tourists along a corridor that has seen successive migrations of Indians, French-Canadian immigrants, loggers and sportsmen. “We get 5,000 cars a day in the summer, we just gotta get them to stop,” said Steven Steward, a selectman in Bingham. Bingham is an unlikely tourist town. The town’s biggest landmark is probably Thompson’s Restaurant, where the bustle and cheer stand out on a Main Street that hosts many vacant buildings. The town is still mourning the closure of the Quimby hardwood veneer mill in the mid-1970s. “Some people still think we’ve got to have a mill, and it’s got to be going. They don’t understand we’ve got to shift gears. We don’t have a choice,” said Steward. The population has fallen by 20 percent since 1990 and is now down to 990.

“Attitudes are changing,” announces Steward. “We’ve got to go with what works or continue declining. It’s slowly coming about. Tourism is what we got – all year long.”

Bingham, situated on a relatively quiet stretch of river, is not quite rafting country, but it’s still a mecca for anglers and snowmobilers. The town has seen an increase in fishing since it “leaned on” FPL Energy to develop a boat launch below Wyman Dam. That was followed by securing a $400,000 downtown revitalization grant from the state to fix up storefronts along its Main Street and enhance the town as a place to stop for lodging and a meal.

More recently, Bingham and other Route 201 communities put themselves on the map as places to visit on “Old Canada Road Scenic Byway.” The federal designation – which has been accompanied by $250,000 in improvements – applies to the 78-mile stretch of Route 201 between Solon and the Canadian border. It is one of four federal scenic byways in Maine. (The others are in Rangeley, on Mount Desert Island and on Schoodic peninsula.)

Improvements include erection of roadside markers, construction of a multi-purpose trail,  acquisition of 100 acres and establishment of a picnic area atop Robbins Hill. Folks in Solon at the southern entrance to the byway are excited about the acquisition of land atop Robbins Hill, which boasts “an incredible view,” said Mary Lou Ridley, a Solon selectman and byway board member. The town is considering developing an interpretive center and possibly some trails, she said. “It’s relatively new, but should be bringing in tourist dollars,” which would enable businesses to expand hours and facilities, said Ridley. “We’re very, very excited,” she said. “ The reason we (Town of Solon) are supportive is we feel it’s an economic benefit to the town.”

Further north, Jackman is considering renovating an historic train station into a tourist attraction, according to Town Manager Kathy MacKenzie. Montreal Maine and Atlantic railroad is willing to donate the 1910 structure, preservation of which was listed as a top priority in the town’s comprehensive plan, but the town is still weighing the renovation costs and possible tenants before taking it on. “We’re still working on it,” MacKenzie said. She said the town’s population loss “is scary.”

At the rooftop of Maine, Madawaska (population 4,300 and drooping) is another declining mill town trying to refashion itself as a tourist destination. Just to the west of Madawaska is Fort Kent, home of the Can-Am Sled Dog Race and Maine Winter Sports Center, home to international nordic races. Madawaska is casting its lot with long-distance motorcycle riders, mountain bikers and cross country skiers.  The town has dedicated a town park as “Four Corners Park,” a destination on the Four Corners Tour, in which motorcyclists try to bike between Madawaska, Maine, San Ysidro, California, Blaine, Washington, and Key West, Florida, in 21 days.

More ambitiously, Madawaska has developed a nordic ski trail network and built a lodge to leverage the region’s growing reputation as a mecca for serious cross country skiers. The Four Seasons Lodge was a community-wide effort spearheaded by insurance broker John Ezzy. But it probably never would have gotten off the ground without seed money from the town, said Ezzy. The town contributed $40,000 and secured a $30,000 grant, and later lent public works crews for excavation work.

“Without those two grants, I could have run up and down promoting this and probably it wouldn’t have gotten too far,” said Ezzy. “It allowed us to be very successful with the local business community.” Ezzy secured $110,000 in cash pledges, a no-interest loan and building materials at cost. The Four Seasons Trail Association is hosting a 42-kilometer nordic ski race that it hopes to develop into a sanctioned race with sponsors.

Town Manager Christine Therrien said the Four Seasons project was intentionally developed to appeal to both locals and outsiders.

“The number one priority was to improve the quality of life for people here, a place to enjoy outdoor recreational activities”, she said. “Number Two, hopefully, is to have a site for the best cross country ski opportunities . . . see what’s going to attract young people or retirement age people to relocate here.”

“It’s like anything, you try to reinvent yourself, build upon strengths, bring new opportunity for development and growth,”said Therrien.

David Vail, who teaches ecological tourism and sustainable rural economic development at Bowdoin College, said nature-based tourism is a growing phenomenon in the “rim counties” of Maine.  “There’s no question that natural attractions are at the core of northern Maine magnetism,” he said. He termed the proliferation of trails “mind boggling” and ticked off a list that included regional nordic ski trails, canoe trials, and numerous thematic auto routes. The most successful initiatives combine natural attractions with culture, history, fine dining and lodging.”The whole package,” he said.

Vail said there’s a “three-way payoff” in nature based tourism- improved quality of life for residents, the beginnings of tourism, and the possibility of building sufficiently on a region’s appeal to attract entrepreneurs and the highly-educated workers of the future. But Vail cautions against unrealistic expectations and says it is “a bit of a stretch” to think individual attractions will necessarily turn economies around. “I don’t think there’s any question that a regional approach is crucial,” he said.

Recruitment

The islands off the coast have been losing year-round population for over a century. Of the 300 islands that once hosted year-round residents, only 15 do so today. But there’s a pioneering spirit out on those islands, helped by the deep pockets of summer residents and the expertise of the Island Institute, that’s keeping many of those communities viable. The tool of choice is recruitment.

All 13 islands with schools actively recruit teachers through affordable housing incentives and other enticements. Islesboro – a 15 minute ferry ride from the mainland at Lincolnville – even recruits students from off island to keep its K-12 charter school viable. And Frenchboro – off the coast of Mount Desert Island – once advertised nationally for year-round residents to fill the seven affordable houses built just for them.

Ruth Kermish-Allen was recruited to teach school on North Haven and now does education and outreach for the Island Institute. Of the various recruitment efforts, she says, “The results have been variable.”

Frenchboro has been the biggest success story, although there have been setbacks. The island recruited foster children in the 1960s, but they all grew up and moved away. The seven original families who moved to Frenchboro in the 1980s also left. But since then, the island has re-populated itself with natives returning to the island. The school-age population that had several times dwindled to a single student and a single teacher has climbed to 22 students. And the year round population has climbed from 43 to 68.

On nearby on Great Cranberry Island, where the average age of the dwindling population is more than 60, the school is kept open in the event young families choose to move to the island.

Kermish-Allen says it’s difficult to generalize about the success of recruitment, but notes that “many island are in decline.”

Collaboration

Aroostook County, which has been losing population for decades, has pioneered the sharing of municipal services and equipment. The impulse is driven less by population decline itself and more by the microscopic size of the towns, a desire for improved service, and the tax burden, according to John Edgecomb, town manager of Mapleton, Castle Hill and Chapman, three potato-growing towns just west of Presque Isle that are the poster children of municipal cooperation.

Mapleton is the biggest of the three with less than 1,900 residents while the other two each have less than 500 residents. Mapleton and Castle Hill have shared a fire department since the early decades of the last century and all three towns have trucked their trash to Presque Isle since the 1940s.  In 1992, the towns got serious, consolidating all municipal officers under a single roof in Mapleton and hiring a single town manager.

“We share almost everything,” said Edgecomb. That includes functions of tax collector and town clerk, treasurer, assessor, code enforcement, as well as trucks and other equipment.

The towns are run by a complicated power-sharing agreement that involves individual boards of selectmen as well as a joint board of selectmen. The one aspect of control each town still retains for itself is control over the upkeep of roads.

Although the towns are nearly joined, they may never get any closer than they are now, says Edgecomb. “Complete annexation is just something a little bit too much,” he said.

In southern Aroostook County, Smyrna and Merrill share a town hall and officers.

Edgecomb predicts population decline – in conjunction with other factors – may drive more towns toward regional cooperation.  “I think there’s going to be more cooperation, I really do, but it will happen very slowly,” he said.

Natural Resources

Some towns are choosing to capitalize on their natural resources.

The town of Kingfield (population 1,110 and holding) had been banking on second-home development and the Sugarloaf ski traffic to turn things around as a result of the closure of two wood turning mills this decade. “We were getting by,” explained Selectman John Dill. “But I don’t think anyone had any great sense of confidence.”

Then “out of the blue,” came opportunity born of natural assets that few people gave much thought to: a natural spring and a large aquifer under the forested flanks of Sugarloaf Mountain and Mount Abraham. Realizing bottled water giant Poland Spring was in the region prospecting for water, a Kingfield Water District employee made sure the company prospected in town. The result is evident today in the construction project on Route 27: a $60 million bottling plant that will initially employ 60 people.

The plant will draw water primarily from nearby Bradbury Spring. Dill said townsfolk were initially concerned about the impact on the town’s own underground water supplies, but today a sense of optimism prevails thanks to the jobs and the company’s contribution to community projects.

Without Poland Spring, Dill’s not sure what the town’s future would be. “I would guess recreation. I don’t think wood mills are a growing industry in Maine,” he said.

Land conservation is also providing opportunities.

About ten years ago, folks in Grand Lake Stream Plantation in Downeast Maine (population 140 and dropping), were growing concerned about rapid new home development on lakes and ownership changes on vast tracks of former Georgia Pacific land. The community’s tax base consists chiefly of rental camps (with a total of 150 beds) and expensive summer homes.

“We have alot of nice houses that we tax pretty good,” said Selectman Louis Cataldo. “We’re not hurting like a lot of towns.”

But the town was fearful that is was losing the precious remote feel that has made it a fly fishing paradise since the turn of the last century. Cataldo and others, including some very well-connected people, launched an ambitious plan to secure its future through land conservation.

Downeast Lakes Land Trust was formed. Working in partnership with New England Forestry Foundation and others, the land trust purchased a conservation easement on 380,000 acres and acquired outright another 27,000 acres that has been turned into Farm Cove Community Forest.

“There’s not a lot of places you can go where the shoreline isn’t covered with camps,” said Cataldo. “I just think this conservation is real important.” The community forest generates income from stumpage sales. In addition, residents can apply for permits to cut firewood and harvest greens and other products for home businesses. “I think this [community forest] will save [Grand Lake Stream] from going away.”

Dissolution

An extreme response to dwindling population is dissolution. It’s a controversial and elaborate process of relinquishing governance to the Land Use Regulatory Commission. It requires approval by two-thirds of the citizenry in that community and the Maine Legislature.        Twelve towns in Maine have disbanded since 1980, although only two have done so since 2000.  The most recent towns to dissolve have been Centerville (population 25) in blueberry country of Washington County in 2004, and Madrid (population 150) in the woods of Franklin County in 2001.

Cooper (population 145) tried to deorganize in 2005, as did Whitneyville (population 250) in 2006, both in Washington County.  In both communities, the residents voted it down, as they did Atkinson (population 330) in Piscataquis County in 2004 and in Drew Plantation in northern Penobscot County (population 55) in 2006

A common perception about deorganizing is that it is a cop-out. Doreen Sheive, fiscal administrator for the Unorganized Territory, said she believes deorganizing is often a reflection of internal politics, rather than an insufficient numbers.

“In my opinion, the process is started because of political problems in town, which every town has, as you know. Very few have gotten too small that they didn’t have people, even though they claimed they did,” Sheive said.  She acknowledges that running a small town, particuarly assessing neighbors’ property, is a “thankless” job. “But that’s the State of Maine.  The number of towns with fewer than 300 people is huge. It shocked me. There aren’t many towns with 1,500 people.”

In response to the spate of towns considering deorganizing, the Maine Legislature tightened the rules for deorganizing and now requires a study of alternatives and a higher threshold to start the process (signatures from 50 percent of registered voters, rather than the previously required 10 percent). Since then, the interest in deorganizing “has dropped right off,” said Sheive.

The population of Whitneyville (population 250) has fallen by half in the 60 years since its once bustling saw mill and attendant log drive were featured in the classic history film “From Stump to Ship.” Today, the Machias River brings a smattering of canoeists to town. It has no stores or businesses; its elementary school closed in the early 1970s. “It’s a pretty little town,” says former Selectman Les Gardner.

But the town has a relatively high tax burden with little control over how taxes are spent, he said. The town pays tuition for the 40 or so students that get schooled in Machias and contracts out its snow plowing, trash disposal, fire protection, and ambulance service.  “As far as major decisions that impact the budget, really we don’t have any,” said Gardner.

Twice in the past decade, the town considered disbanding. “I had mixed feelings myself, I grew up in this town,” said Gardner, who became champion of dissolution after citizens gathered petition signatures. “I’d rather not deorganize and become a ward of the state, so to speak,” he said. “But there would certainly be a savings, you can’t deny that.”

Disbanding would have brought the mill rate down to the $10 level that currently applies to the unorganized territory.  “That year we would have deorganized we had the highest mill rate in the state,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense from a cost standpoint.”

The town ceased being a community when the Whitneyville Elementary School closed about 35 years ago, he said.

“When you lose your school, it tears the heart and soul from community,” he said. “A small community needs a focal point, where people can congregate. Parents, grandparents aunts, and uncles, they all follow the children. That creates community.”

But it wasn’t just about economics, Gardner said.

Participation in town government has dwindled to the point where all three selectmen, the outgoing town clerk and incoming town clerk are related by blood or marriage. Gardner said he worries about the growing complexity of town government, even in a small town, and the impact of a single lawsuit.
 

“It takes a fair amount of expertise and time to run a town ... It doesn’t change that much [just because you’re a small town]. If someone put a lawsuit on this town, every citizen would be paying for it through taxes,” he said.

The motivations for deorganizing were similar in Atkinson, according to First Selectman David Kinney. The elementary school was closed in the 1990s. The town contracts with surrounding towns for fire protection, ambulance service and snow plowing. “Basically, all we’re doing is paperwork here,” said Kinney. The tax savings would have been significant, he said. More so was a lack of interest in participating. “With us, the people on the board managing the town, the lack of interest in people is a big consideration. We don’t see people stepping forward to be in town government, not qualified people.” He said the town is still looking to fill an upcoming vacancy on the board of selectmen.