MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Skowhegan, Maine has been devastated by the global economy. Just a few decades ago, it was thriving - it had shoe factories and paper and lumber mills. But over the years, almost all the industry has packed up and left. Skowhegan is now a relatively poor town in a poor state. Some wonder if it will ever recover. Others think all the town needs is a good plan.
NPR's Adam Davidson reports.
ADAM DAVIDSON: There's one place to go to forget all the bad things about Skowhegan. Forget that almost half the population is on welfare. Forget all the teen pregnancy and drug abuse and domestic violence. Forget all that, and go to the top of the old Solon Manufacturing plant, where it's very windy but so beautiful.
Ms. AUDREY LOVERING (Manager, MainStreet Skowhegan): Oh, this is amazing.
Ms. AMY McLELLAN (Real Estate Agent): Isn't it fun up here?
Ms. LOVERING: Take a look at our downtown and our community.
DAVIDSON: That's Audrey Lovering and Amy McLellan.
DAVIDSON: That's Audrey Lovering and Amy McLellan.
The Solon mill is five-storey high, by far the biggest building in town. And from up here, Skowhegan is stunning: century-old, ornate brick buildings surrounded by green, wooded hills. A large river, the Kenebec, runs right through downtown, and you can see some teenagers in swimming trunks on the tall rocky riverbank.
Wait. Is that kid about to jump in? Oh no.
Unidentified Woman: Oh my God.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIDSON: The view from up here is like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it's the view that could save this town, says Amy McLellan. McLellan is a real estate agent hoping to convince a developer to buy this old factory and convert it into luxury condos. She says wealthy folks in Boston and Portland would love a second home here. Some of them might start businesses, might employ those river-jumping kids one day. But the town isn't quite ready yet. There's not enough to draw new people or to keep them here.
Ms. McLELLAN: 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, and they'll call it The Gorge Restaurant or, whatever, that kind of stuff.
DAVIDSON: Downtown looks awfully different on street level, a lot less charming. Audrey Lovering shows me the first thing you see entering town.
Ms. LOVERING: You do see some despair of why wouldn't you have a tattoo parlor right here?
DAVIDSON: The tattoo parlor sits next to an abandoned bank building, and up close, you can see that many of the buildings have been neglected. Lovering runs MainStreet Skowhegan, a non-profit that has raised millions. They've installed lovely, old-fashioned lampposts. They've developed the funds to refurbish some of the buildings. Once the town looks nice again, she says, the place should fill up with boutiques, bookstores and nice restaurants.
Mr. MAURICE ROBBINS (Welder): It's nice to have fancy stuff and fancy restaurants, 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.
DAVIDSON: Maurice Robbins is drinking coffee at Frenchy's(ph), a local diner. He says taxpayers are sick of funding redevelopment schemes. Over the past few years, they've paid for lots of bright ideas, including a multimillion-dollar industrial park that's still mostly empty. But, he says, the roads are a mess, and taxes keep going up, and most don't want to spend more money gussying up the town for a bunch of outsiders who probably won't come anyway.
Robbins doesn't trust town government anymore. 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 is the town manager. He wants to invest, but he told the town council they have to cut their budgets.
Mr. PHIL TARR (Skowhegan Town Manager): This isn't fun. 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.
DAVIDSON: Cory King, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, said these cuts would roll back the few tourist friendly amenities the town does have.
Mr. CORY KING (Head, Chamber of Commerce, Maine): So there will be no fireworks this year, as well as there will be no public restroom, the portable potties, back at the Chamber of Commerce, and it pretty much ruins the balloon festival event that we have.
DAVIDSON: That's hardly the worst of it. The town might cut a few firefighter and police jobs, some of the road construction crew, the public library. Rather than invest in a bright future, the town seems to be inviting more crime and decay. What's especially strange is that this town battle over every nickel and dime in the budget doesn't actually seem to be about money. The most ambitious, progressive plan - the one that Lovering supports - would only add two-tenths of a percentage point to the local property tax.
Ms. MARY JANE CLIFFORD (Town General Assistance Office): Be with you in a minute, Leonard(ph).
DAVIDSON: Mary Jane Clifford runs the town general assistance office.
Ms. CLIFFORD: I'm dealing with a lot of young people who are - really seemed unemployable. They've dropped out of school for the most part. A lot of them, their families have thrown them out. They have no plan. Many of them are heavily tattooed, heavily pierced.
DAVIDSON: She says the smart young people just leave. There's nothing here for them. She says globalization may have caused this crisis, but it's up to the town, its citizens and leaders, to figure out a way to move forward, to bring the town back to life. And, she says, she just doesn't see that happening.
Ms. CLIFFORD: It's almost like watching the death of a town. It's like watching a town just fold up. It's almost like we're sinking into this big pit out here next to us. It's very sad. And I think that's some of the fear and frustration and all that is in the town now is that, it's not the way it used to be. Things aren't, but you wonder if it's ever going to be good again.
DAVIDSON: The Skowhegan Town Council just announced plans to cut another $400,000 from the budget.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
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