MILLINOCKET -- 86 handpicked citizens of the Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway, and Woodville area will seek to determine the future of the Katahdin area in 32 hours, spread out over four days.
Meeting at the Stearns High School gymnasium, this committee of residents will determine a path to solutions to problems faced by the Katahdin region, including the decline in population and school enrollments, an unemployment rate in the 30 percentile, and the area's overall poor economic health.
They will be talking about cooperation between area communities, and perhaps consolidation, the goal being to make more of the resources that exist in the area through collaboration and to find ways to improve conditions.
Called the Katahdin Area Planning Conference, and also known as the Vision Conference, today is the day when the chosen ones will decide what they want for our future.
Michael Kelly, a facilitator for the Wiscasset-based Advanced Management Catalyst, Inc (AMCi), the company hired to bring it about, said that the conference is an opportunity for the people living in the four-town area to turn things around and tap its potential to become a vital center of growth.
"My leap of faith is that everyone in those communities wants a thriving region that's a joyful place to be," he said. "The process is about helping these people discover how to create that for themselves."
The conference is expected to focus on the collaboration or integration of services between the communities. During Wednesday evening community forums, issues of public safety, recreation, town administration, public works, education, and economic development have been discussed. During these meetings, it was learned that consolidation was not a good word to use, although there was some support for a collaboration of some sort.
Kelly made assurances that the process is not about the towns losing their individuality.
"Some people are worried about losing community identities and I don't know where that's coming from," he said.
While it has been emphasized that the purpose of the conference was not to sell predetermined goals, presenters during the community forums have been one-sided, and plans appear to have already been made.
On the subject of school consolidation, for example, only Keith Ober, interim superindentent of area schools and a chosen participant in the vision conference, was invited to speak. Despite the fact that there is a strong push for smaller schools throughout the nation, with good arguments against consolidation of schools, that viewpoint was not brought to the table.
The same was true of other topics under consideration.
Questions also exist as to the people who were chosen to represent their communities.
"Not everyone in this area is in favor of consolidation," said one female resident who asked not to be identified, "yet the committee seems to have been selected from those who want to do just that."
"After sitting through these meetings, I'm more disgusted now than I was before," said Paul Farrington, a Medway resident, referring to the pre-conference community consolidation forums.
Nevertheless, the committee of 86 chosen representatives will begin today by deciding what they want the area to look like in the future, the kinds of industries that it will have, the role of town government, and the nature of its educational system, according to Kelly.
The committee will then establish priorities and determine which actions need to be taken in order to bring their vision about.
However the committee members were chosen, it is clear that by the end of the four-day conference, they are expected to share a common goal and to push for implementation of their vision for our future.
"Don't stand in their way," warned Kelly during one of the preconference forums.
Not everyone is pessimistic. Committee member and Medway Selectman, John Farrington, is hopeful that the conference will find cost-sharing methods that will benefit each of the towns.
"A person, a business, or an organization has always got to have goals they're striving for and I think that's going to come out of it," he said.
The Katahdin Area Planning Conference will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. today and tomorrow, as well as on Friday, September 19, and Saturday, September 20. The conference will be held in the Stearns High School gymnasium, and will be open to the public, who, although they will not be permitted to talk, may submit questions and ideas to conference facilitators.