Just a few decades ago, Skowhegan, Maine, was a thriving industrial town, with successful paper and lumber mills and shoe factories. But more of those products are now imported from China and Canada, and the town's industry has packed up and left town, leaving some to wonder whether Skowhegan will be able to survive at all.
Admiring the View
The town is plagued by high rates of teen pregnancy, drug abuse and domestic violence, according to Mary Jane Clifford, who runs the town general assistance office.
But the best place to go to forget all of Skowhegan's woes is the roof of the old Solon factory.
It's five stories high, by far the biggest building in town. Looking down from its roof, Skowhegan is stunning: a spread of century-old, ornate brick buildings surrounded by green, wooded hills. Teenagers in swimming suits jump from the tall, rocky riverbanks into the Kennebec River, which runs right through downtown.
In short, the view from up there is like a Norman Rockwell painting, which is why Amy McLellan, a real estate agent, thinks a developer may want to buy the old factory and convert it into luxury condos. She says wealthy people in Boston and Portland would love to have a second home in Skowhegan. Some might even start businesses that could employ those river-jumping kids one day.
But she says the town is not quite ready and doesn't have enough to draw new people or to keep them.
"You want life and energy, and you want music, and you want a rooftop garden with a band going up there in the summer, and maybe a restaurant on that side so they can see the gorge," McLellan says.
A Town Neglected
On street level, Skowhegan's downtown looks a lot less charming.
"You do see some despair," says Audrey Lovering, the head of Main Street Skowhegan, a nonprofit revitalization group. "Why would you have a tattoo parlor right here?"
The tattoo parlor sits next to an abandoned bank building, and up close, it's evident that many of the buildings have been neglected. Main Street Skowhegan has raised millions of dollars. It has installed lovely, old-fashioned lampposts, and it is also developing a fund to refurbish some of the buildings. Once the town is presentable, Lovering says, the place should fill up with boutiques, bookstores and nice restaurants.
But Maurice Robbins, a welder, says that's not realistic.
"It's nice to have fancy stuff and fancy restaurants," Robbins says while drinking coffee at a local diner. "But that's for the rich people. That would be like us going out to Hollywood. You have to be real. We're not living in a fantasy world out here."
Robbins says taxpayers are sick of funding redevelopment schemes. During the past few years, they've paid for many bright ideas, including a multimillion-dollar industrial park that is still mostly empty. But, he says, the roads are a mess, and taxes keep going up. According to Robbins, most residents don't want to spend more money gussying up the town for a bunch of outsiders who probably won't come anyway.
Save or Invest?
Robbins has lost faith in the town government, and he's not alone. A majority of voters rejected a plan to rebuild much of the town's infrastructure. This battle - between those who want to invest and those who want to save money - came to a head at a recent town budget committee meeting. Phil Tarr, the town manager, wants to invest but told the town counsel members that they need to cut their budgets.
"This isn't fun," Tarr says. "I don't see any smiling faces around here. The board is looking for a million dollars. It's going to find a million dollars. Let's make the best out of it."
Cory King, the head of the local chamber of commerce, says those cuts would roll back the few tourist-friendly amenities the town does have.
"There will be no fireworks this year, as well as there will be no public restroom, and it pretty much ruins the balloon festival that we have," King says.
That's hardly the worst of it. The town might cut a few firefighter and police jobs, some of the road construction crew, and the public library.
The battle over the budget doesn't seem to be about money. The most ambitious, progressive plan – the one that Lovering supports – might increase the local property tax by just two-tenths of a percentage point.
Yet the Skowhegan town council just announced plans to cut another $400,000 from its budget.
Death of a Town
Mary Jane Clifford, of the town general assistance office, says the town's young residents are facing a crisis. She says there's nothing in Skowhegan for the smart young people, who end up leaving.
"I'm dealing with a lot of young people who really seem unemployable," Clifford says. "They've dropped out of school. Their families have thrown them out. They have no plan. Many of them are heavily tattooed, heavily pierced."
Clifford says globalization might have caused the town's decay, but it's up to the town – its residents and leaders – to find a way to bring it back to life. But she admits that she just doesn't see that happening.
"It's almost like watching the death of a town," she says. "It's like watching a town just fold up. It's very sad, and I think that's some of the fear and frustration that's in the town. It's not the way it used to be. Things aren't, but you wonder if it's ever going to be good again."