When I met Nancy DeWitt, board member of Our Katahdin, I knew that her son and founding board member, Sean, didn’t fall far from the tree.
I first became aware of Our Katahdin while researching and blogging about the Millinocket region national park debate. Our Katahdin “is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization working to promote community and economic development in the Katahdin region.” And, as a lifelong citizen of the region, Nancy DeWitt understands the communities and how they have suffered economically in the wake of mill closures.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Sean, Nancy and fellow board member Mike Faloon at the At the Bridge Restaurant in Medway. All three were engaging and hilarious, and the folks at At the Bridge couldn’t have been friendlier. Even the weather provided a perfect day for a road trip.
Nancy DeWitt started her career with Great Northern Paper in the insurance department. After becoming pregnant, she began a successful travel/tour agency out of her home. One minute she described a fascinating, popular tour line she developed called “Mystery Tours,” involving bus trips to unknown locations. The next she lamented having to drive at least 20 miles just to buy socks or underwear.
She is this utterly charming combination of savvy businesswoman and down-home mom, and she is actively applying this diverse skill set to her efforts with Our Katahdin.
Her son Sean brings the world view. His skill set has been honed working in various capacities on projects around the world. Currently he is a director at the World Resources Institute, which provides an enormous resource and database on economic trends and sustainability for Our Katahdin to access. The younger DeWitt said the Millinocket region can learn from successful revitalization efforts elsewhere, even in light of the divisive climate.
He cited the example of post-genocide Rwanda (allowing of course for the far more severe nature of the divisions there). Working there for a period of time, he got a firsthand view of what contributed to that nation’s relatively rapid rebuilding. DeWitt noted the similarities between the two regions: hilly landscapes rich with natural resources on which locals depended, infrastructure issues and depleted populations as many Rwandans had fled to neighboring countries and overseas.
DeWitt identified two key elements crucial to Rwanda’s process: (1) plugging into the “diaspora” to contribute resources and capital for the revitalization and (2) opening lines of communication between all the necessary parties, enabling the revitalization and healing to happen on a very grassroots level. He feels these two elements will be essential to the Our Katahdin effort, as well, and are being incorporated into their process, even in these early stages.
Mike Faloon, chief operating officer of Standish Mellon Asset Management, is the high-energy money guy who loves to promote the Our Katahdin platform and the talents of the DeWitts, the other board members, and the growing list of participants. He’s especially proud of the work of Josh Stevens who is heading the community garden project. He said he hopes the project serves as a seed for further agricultural endeavors, including market-level endeavors.
All three spoke of wanting to honor ties to the forest products industry that go back for generations. The board is targeting three inter-related areas for economic development: forest products, tourism and recreation, and the digital economy. They see each area having equal value and listed Maine Heritage Timber, New England Outdoors Center, and DesignLab as thriving businesses representative of each.
The board hopes area residents can begin to see the region through an “entirely different lens” than the current for-or-against-the-park lens.
They acknowledge changing lenses will require building trust, which is why they’ve begun the endeavor on such a small scale with little media. They want the conversation to begin directly with the communities and stakeholders first, opening lines of communication on the ground level within and between the communities. The focus on small community revitalization projects during the onset of the platform is part of this strategy, and all funds donated to specific projects go directly to those projects.
Because they are from the region, the board members don’t want to be perceived as big shot consultants from away looking to make a buck and a name for themselves. Rather, they want to give back to a region that has given them so much, as volunteers.
As I drove up into Medway and East Millinocket, I couldn’t help thinking what an amazing thing it would be to be able to live and work in such a beautiful place. Both Faloon and the younger DeWitt bragged about the quality of education they received as “mill town kids” and about the benefits of being raised in that region to which they attribute much of their success. They are determined to be a part of a revitalization that brings that quality of life and level of pride back.
And the board is looking at it comprehensively — from partnerships with other foundations and institutions to growing partnerships with community leaders and members, industries and business leaders, organizations and elected officials. They’ve even begun establishing the statuses of deteriorating and/or abandoned buildings, which they’re learning can be a complicated process.
Among the partnerships is one with the Maine Community Foundation and Eastern Maine Community College to create an incubator project to support new business development. The team said, though, that capital is critical. When researching incubator projects, they were told not to bother starting one unless it involved capital.
Therefore, in the fall they will be launching Our Katahdin Capital to provide equity investment capital for small businesses in the region.
People will be able to buy in for as little as $100, and the returns generated will go back to the investors. The $100 buy-in is intended to allow as many people as possible to have a sense of ownership — a major theme for the platform.
Whether through investing in Our Katahdin Capital, developing ideas or participating in any of the other many levels the platform allows, Our Katahdin is designed to be community-oriented and people-driven. You can submit your own ideas for them here.
It’s designed to keep the region’s money and talent circling back into the region to grow it more, to attract more people, more small businesses, more new enterprises, more amenities and more investment. As Faloon asserted, capital draws more capital. Economic activity draws more economic activity. And the board of Our Katahdin wants that process to begin at home.