by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer
The first of its kind in the state. A model for regional economic development in Maine and elsewhere. That's what the planners at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (AVCOG) are saying about the Economic Development Strategy that was developed for and recently adopted by the Franklin County Commissioners.
Why? Because it is an approach that is based on "partnering" the economic development of an entire region. And while that may not sound revolutionary, it's an approach that is not easy to come by in a state where turf battles are not uncommon, where collaboration and consensus are often difficult to achieve, and where duplication of effort sometimes occurs.
But it's an approach that is critical if anything of consequence is to get done in a region of limited resources, as is Franklin County and other rural parts of the state, say the two AVCOG planners who coordinated the two-year project. And that is why AVCOG planners Linda Wood and Amy Metivier say they believe the 20-page strategic plan is not destined to collect dust on a shelf.
As the two describe the strategic plan, it provides the people of Franklin County not only with a "framework for working together" for "leveraging each other," for "targeting existing resources to implement the strategy" but also for "working to enhance what they already have."
This article looks briefly at the partnering framework that was constructed in Franklin County; it then focuses on one of the strategies currently under development to enhance existing resources in the county-Heritage Tourism.
One could say Franklin County - historically known for its paper and other wood products, agriculture, footwear, and outdoor recreation - was ripe for the partnering approach, i.e., one could say it was ripe for ratcheting up the levels of collaboration and cooperation that already existed among the many organizations - private, public and non-profit - that called Franklin County home.
In recent years, the county had experienced more than its share of layoffs and plant closings. Its unemployment rate was third or fourth highest in the state, with portions of the county experiencing rates as high as 10 to 12 percent. And those figures were gathered before G.H. Bass closed down the last of its shoe shops in Wilton.
As such, Franklin County was eligible for and through AVCOG received monies to develop a plan to diversify the county's economy. It received a $75,000 grant (Long-term Economic Deterioration) from the Economic Development Administration in Washington and a $25,000 grant (Regional Assistance Fund) from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
Between 1995 and 1997, countless community forums, face-to-face interviews and completed surveys were involved in coming up with 50 very specific strategies for diversifying the county's economy. In keeping with the mantra of partnering, the 50 strategies were "adopted" for implementation by 20 organizations in the county. A large poster declaring that the strategic plan "represents a new level of cooperation and coordination among the many local/regional organizations in Franklin County..." lists all 20, ranging from AVCOG, to the Franklin County Development Office, to Mt. Abraham High School, to the Rangeley Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, to Regional Transportation Advisory Committee #7, to the Sugarloaf Area Chamber of Commerce, to Town Managers/Selectmen, to the University of Maine at Farmington, to the Western Mountains Alliance, to the Workforce Development Center, to name a few.
A look at the strategic plan clearly shows who is responsible for what.
· For example, AVCOG will partner with wood product businesses in the county to publish a semi-annual newsletter to share information on the secondary wood products industry. It will also work together to pursue joint opportunities (shared storage space, joint product lines, joint equipment sharing).
· For example, the Franklin County Development Office and University of Maine at Farmington will partner with AVCOG to develop a Geographic Information System based resource map of the county that would include fiber optic routes, water and sewer infrastructure, etc.
· For example, the Sugarloaf Area Chamber of Commerce partnering with the Franklin County Development Office will assess opportunities related to outdoor sporting equipment manufacturing by contacting L.L. Bean and other outdoor equipment companies and determine whether or not a feasibility study is warranted.
To list but a few of the partnered strategies now in the works.
While the partnering concept is one thread woven into the strategy, as noted above, a second thread is the idea of enhancing the resources already available in the region. And when you speak of existing resources in Franklin County, what immediately comes to mind is recreation, be it winter skiing, summer golfing, fall foliage, year-round hiking, fly fishing, or visits to its numerous historic sites and museums, like the Rangeley Lakes Logging Museum and the Stanley Steamer Museum.
So it is no surprise that one of the six goals of the strategic plan is to "increase tourism in the Franklin County region" and one of its objectives calls for "creating an attractive tourism product capitalizing upon Franklin County's natural resources and outdoor recreational attributes..."
Inland Tourism: The Study
One of the strategic plan's objectives calls for "educating the general public, state and local political officials and other interested parties regarding the importance of tourism to the Franklin County economy." Toward that end, Davidson-Peterson Associates of York, Maine was hired to produce what is now being hailed as the first look at the impact of tourism at the county level in Maine. It's called The Franklin County Tourism Impact Study. Based on an analysis of 1996 data, the study showed:
· The value of tourism in Franklin County was in the order of $88 million annually in expenditures and those expenditures produced nearly 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the county with an annual income of over $36 million.
· Without tourism, the study noted, the unemployment rate in Franklin County would have nearly tripled, from a rate of 6.6 percent to more than 19 percent during 1996; specifically, this would have meant an additional 1,900 people would have been unemployed in 1996.
· Those expenditures generated a total of $11.8 million in government revenues: $6.7 million in state taxes and $5.1 million in local taxes.
· Without tourism expenditures, Franklin County's local residential taxes would have increased $471 per household to maintain government services at current level.
The study also showed that:
· Roughly one-third ($27 million) of the $88 million was spent at hotel/motel/resorts, while another third ($25 million) was spent by those visitors with no commercial lodging expense (camps, condo owners or borrowers, visiting friends/relatives). Campers accounted for more than $5 million and outfitter guests represented about $1 million.
· One-third or $27 million was spent on recreation, with the majority ($22 million) spent on lift tickets, greens fees, and hunting/fishing licenses.
· The highest expenditures occurred in winter ($26.7 million) and summer ($26.2 million), and fall ($23.1 million).
It should be noted that the study conducted by Davidson-Peterson did not rely on the traditional top-down or industry receipts based measurement but rather by a bottom-up approach, letting tourists define the amount of money they spend and how they spend it.
The Heritage Loop
The "product" that emerged is known as "the Franklin Heritage Loop." As Project Director Bruce Hazard explains, it takes its name from the fact that the project - now in its final stages of development - has identified and inventoried over 100 different cultural and natural attractions in Franklin County, and from the fact these attractions are located on or near a 100-mile circle or loop that begins and ends in Farmington and includes scenic routes 4,16 and 27. A map of "The Loop," highlighting the top scenic, recreation and historic attractions (from the Stanley Steamer Museum in Kingfield to the Norlands Living Center in Livermore to Smalls Falls in Madrid, to the golf course in Carrabassett Valley) is due out this summer.
Hazard says the concept of "heritage tourism" is a major new trend in high quality tourism. He says what makes the Franklin Heritage Loop project unique is that while many heritage tourism projects depend on a single site, the one in Franklin County is spread out over most of the county. In doing so, says Hazard, the map consciously tells "the story" of the whole of Franklin County in such a way that it can be viewed not only as an economic development tool but as a community building tool as well.
What also makes the project unique, says Hazard, is the "Loop Group" that is charged with implementing the project. It includes the Maine Mountain Counties Regional Heritage Program, an initiative of the Western Mountains Alliance, as well as the Franklin County Development Office, five chambers of commerce (Sugarloaf, Rangeley, Greater Farmington, Wilton, and Jay-Livermore-Livermore Falls), and AVCOG.
As Hazard sees it, the 50,000 maps of the loop that are due for distribution this summer will target several different groups, not all of them "tourists." First, there are the local communities who have yet to grasp the tourism potential of their region.
Then there are those visitors to the area who come for one particular reason and have yet to realize what else is available in the area. "We mean to get them to do more by staying longer or coming back again," says Hazard.
"And last but not least, says Hazard, if we can demonstrate that there is a broad and vast range of tourist attractions - a so-called critical mass - then we can attract people who might never have come to Franklin County."
Long-term Community Building
Hazard says if the project just ended with a driving map of the history and natural character of Franklin County, he would not have been interested in its development in the first place. His primary interest is in what he calls "the building of community." As he sees it, economic development, especially the kind offered by "heritage tourism," is an excellent tool for building community, as local conservation committees, historical societies and local government officials work together with the private sector to preserve and enhance their region's heritage.
As such, Loop Group, with the endorsement of the towns of Carrabassett Valley, Farmington, Rangeley, Kingfield, Carthage, Chesterville, Jay, Weld and Wilton, has applied for and just recently received a $10,000 Community Planning Grant from the Maine Office of Economic and Community Development to do some long-term planning and development to further the concept. Among the questions the Loop Group will be looking at are:
· Do we see patterns of resources in our inventory? Are there packaged tours that could be developed for specific groups of tourists, such as those interested only in the region's history or only in its narrow gauge railroads or only in its agriculture? And what is the market in the northeast for such packages?
· What sort of infrastructure needs to be developed to enhance the visit to the sites? Historic sights of high potential interest may require better interpretation to make them more accessible and more understandable to visitors. Trails may need better signage or maintenance.
· What sort of local and regional partnerships (private, public, nonprofit) need to be developed to sustain and enhance the sites in the long-run?