Machias reaching a “critical mass” for growth, boosters say

If you ask Bill Kitchen what’s going well in Machias, you’ll need to sit back because you’ll be listening for a while.

Kitchen is a passionate booster for the shire town of Washington County. In fact, five years ago, during his campaign for a seat on board of selectmen, Kitchen penned an op-ed titled, “What’s Right with Machias.”

He won in a landslide, and he hasn’t changed his position yet.

“I knew it had become fashionable to say how downtrodden and poor we are in Machias, and once you slip into that, it’s very hard to get out of,” said Kitchen, who for two years has served as Machias town manager. “The point of that letter was to say, look, most of the pieces are already in place.”

Those pieces include what Kitchen calls the town’s “signature assets,” like the Machias Dike, where vendors set up impromptu flea markets along Route 1, and Bad Little Falls Park, which wraps around twin waterfalls in the center of town, and the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, now in its 46th year and set for Aug. 18-20.

They also include key infrastructure, like the expanding Machias airport, where planning is underway to construct a longer runway, as well as Down East Community Hospital, and the University of Maine at Machias, standing high on College Hill since 1909.

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Even with these assets, Kitchen acknowledges that by another measure, Machias is a poor town. In fact, according to the latest five-year data from American Community Survey, it’s the poorest town in Maine, with an average median income hovering just above $20,000 a year, compared to almost $65,000 statewide. At least in part, Machias’ low number is explained by the concentration of low-income housing units located near the services it offers.

But no matter the reason, it’s a number that motivates Kitchen. Working in his office just a stone’s throw from the Middle and Machias rivers, he waves his arm across a map of Machias, the smallest town in Washington County, and lays out the question he’s always working to answer —how can he create a more vibrant Machias without raising taxes?

“Here we are, the service center of this county that is bigger than some states, and yet we’ve only got 14.8 square miles to work with. And a lot of that is already in use by entities that pay little or no taxes,” Kitchen said. “There are very limited amounts of space in which to build, assuming you have people that want to build here.”

Chris Meroff wants to build in Machias. He fell in love with the area in the late 1990s while visiting with his grandparents. For years now, he’s made his home here for five months of the year, spending the rest of his time in Austin, Texas, running his 30-plus businesses and venture capital firm.

But one day, Meroff and his wife would like to retire to Machias. Before they can, he says, he has some investments to make, and his end goal is nothing short of “flipping Machias.”

“I love the people, I love the land, and I love the scenery, and we want to put our money to work here,” said Meroff. “I have flipped homes, I have flipped businesses, and now for me, it’s time to flip Main Street.”

The Meroffs’ investments in Machias are already almost too numerous to count and still growing.

Four years ago, they started work on a 65-acre farm in the rural Kennebec District, where today they operate the Coffee + Crisp Cafe at West Branch Farm, overlooking West Branch Little Kennebec Bay and acres of blueberry barrens. Below it sprawls a large white tent, which will host multiple weddings this summer, until it is replaced by a two-story event venue modeled on a 1925 chicken barn.

A you-pick apple orchard is planted, an enormous catering kitchen is under construction now, mini-cattle and ducks are en route for the petting zoo, and a master organic gardener has been retained to oversee next year’s gardens, which will supply all of it, including a mercantile for shoppers, with food.

To say nothing of Meroff’s near-term plans for a drive-through coffee shop, a large Machias lumber mill, or the creation of a global lifestyle brand, Maine Woods Outfitters, planned for another retail location in Machias and, quite possibly, to be the subject of a reality TV show.

“Machias’s downtown is why I’m doing this,” said Meroff. “We’ve seen this work in rural towns in Texas that have the same isolation issues, but they don’t have bones like Machias.”

Valdine Atwood, widely acknowledged as the unofficial town historian of Machias, knows everything about its good bones.

Fittingly, her home stands downtown near Machias’ best-known historic site, the Burnham Tavern, where in 1775 local patriots hatched plans to capture a British warship and its crew. They succeeded, and the Battle of the Margaretta is now celebrated as the first naval battle of the American Revolution. Every June, the Machias Historical Society sponsors the Margaretta Days Festival and Craft Fair, complete with reenactments of the famous battle.

When she and her family moved to Machias in 1962, Atwood recalls large numbers of retail shops lining Main Street, including two dress shops and two shoe stores, plus the local bureau of the Bangor Daily News, where she and six others reported the news from Washington County.

“You did not have to leave Machias at all to get what you needed,” Atwood recalled. “At one time, there were five car dealerships in Machias.”

David Whitney agrees that, like almost everywhere, today there is less retail on Main Street, but says there is also growth happening here. And Whitney has a lengthy perspective. His family moved Downeast in the 1700s, and his grandparents and his father operated one of the car dealerships at the base of College Hill.

Today he runs Whitney’s Tri-Town Marine in the same location, selling boats and, more recently, lots of ATVs, including the Argo line, which features a popular amphibious model.

“We’ve added this Argo dealership, and we are hovering between fourth and fifth in volume across North America out of 300 dealerships,” Whitney said. “And we’ve been at it for less than a year.”

Some of those sales are to locals, but many are not. That’s a model Whitney and many other local business owners aim for because it brings in outside money and employ local people.

“Most of the revenues that we generate in all of my companies come from outside Washington County,” said Whitney, who also owns Machias Glassworks, Downeast Packaging Solutions, and Whitney Wreath, a large balsam wreath company which enabled him to move home from Boston for good, in his early 20s.

“And since that time, I have struggled happily. And the struggles are real, and they are continual, and they are many,” said Whitney. “But first and foremost, my entrepreneurial attitude has always been one of optimism. I’ve listened to local pessimistic viewpoints, and I’ll have nothing of it.”

Whitney’s optimistic outlook and diversified business strategy are shared by many investing time and money in Machias today, like Sandi Malagara and her husband Ryan, who moved here from Connecticut almost 20 years ago.

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They run multiple businesses from Crows Nest Shops on Dublin Street, including a gift shop, Expressions Floral, a gourmet bakery, an electronics store, a shipping outlet, and the headquarters for Ryan’s drone videography business, Drones Eye View, in steady demand by Maine realtors.

“Right from the beginning, we’ve looked around to see what was missing. We asked, ‘What can’t we get here?’” Sandi recalled. “And then we would fill that need. Then once we’d gotten that piece established, we’d say, ‘What else?’”

This year, the Malagaras have added ATV rental to their business list, including an Argo they purchased from Whitney’s Tri-Town. They join another new business, Downeast Adventures, which this spring opened an ATV rental company to cater to a growing sector interested in the Downeast Sunrise Trail, an 87-mile multi-use offroad trail that carries walkers, bikers, and ATV riders from Ellsworth to Calais, by way of downtown Machias. The trail was at the center of June’s Machias ATV Jamboree.

Diversification was also on Ben Edwards’ mind when, in 2019, he decided to start a business on his family’s 200-year-old Machias farm, Schoppee Farm. Visiting from England, where he worked, Edwards met and fell in love with his now-wife, Allison, and knew he wanted to make his living in Machias in a way that might help the region, too.

“I’ve always been concerned about Machias’s primary revenue-generating industries, like blueberries and lobsters. We have no control over pricing, no manufacturing, and we take the smallest piece of the pie,” said Edwards. “I knew I wanted to form a primary industry that generated revenue from outside Downeast Maine, and the farm seemed like my platform to do that.”

Today the Edwards have diversified Machias’ business portfolio with their organic line of CBD oil products grown and manufactured on the farm. But a few close calls with state hemp legislation showed Edwards they needed to diversify their own offerings, too.

“I had been looking for other business opportunities because I realized how fragile my position was. An act of the legislature could put us out of business,” Ben recalled. “That’s what led me to purchase the elderberry business last summer.”

Now, as owners of Seattle Elderberry, Schoppee Farm manufactures its products, too, sourcing organic elderberries from other Maine farmers while they work toward growing their own. But they’re not stopping there. This summer, in the farm’s original milking shed, they’ll open a cafe, including a French-inspired bakery, enlisting the talents of Chef Ross Florance.

“One of the things I thought I was giving up when I moved here was a cafe,” said Edwards, who recently sat down with Meroff to share ideas. “The overall attitude of collaboration in Machias is entirely different from what I remember as a child, and I think it looks better than I have ever seen it. That might be in contrast to things looking relatively dire, but I think what Bill [Kitchen] and some of the other local people have done has not only turned things around but really built some momentum for Machias.”

In June, Edwards was elected to the Machias Board of Selectmen, where he joins another local son who moved home to invest in Machias. Selectman Jake Patryn works as director of operations for Acadian Seaplants and, together with his fiancée Morgan-Lea Fogg, farms sugar kelp and manufactures a line of kelp products under the brand Nautical Farms.

“When we showed up saying we were going to start a seaweed farm, people thought we were insane. But now there’s a growing interest, which is exciting,” said Fogg. “There’s a need to figure out how to continue our working waterfront that doesn’t rely on only one product.”

In June, Patryn and Fogg opened their first storefront stocking Nautical Farms’ line of kelp-based food and bath products, as well as books and other seaweed-related gifts.

For Patryn, doubling down on Machias was an easy decision.

“Machias has always been a part of me. I knew I didn’t want to leave again, so I started to think, how can I get more involved?” Patryn said, recalling what led him to run for selectman. “A big part of it is Bill Kitchen. I have a lot of respect for Bill, and as a leader, he really makes me want to be there beside him and help in any way that I can.”

Kitchen, whose background is not in municipal management but corporate and brand strategy, says he thinks of himself as Machias’ cheerleader, facilitator, and expediter rolled into one.

“It’s my job to get everybody to believe to a point where they are willing to invest their money and their time because it takes both,” he said. “Nobody wants to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I think that for a long time, people felt this was a listing ship, and that’s changed. I think we have reached a point of critical mass.”

This article first appeared in The Working Waterfront, a publication of the Island Institute, and was republished with permission.

The post Machias reaching a “critical mass” for growth, boosters say appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

Here’s why West Virginia has struggled to increase labor force participation for decades

For months, West Virginia officials have been touting record-low unemployment numbers. That continued in June, as officials announced that only 3.3% of West Virginians were unemployed and actively looking for work. 

But there’s less to cheer about when it comes to the state’s fairly stagnant labor force participation rate. That figure, which essentially measures the percentage of working-age adults who are either employed or actively looking for work, isn’t the most well-known economic indicator. But it’s one that economists say matters just as much, if not more, than unemployment numbers.  

“Unemployment is not the problem,” said John Deskins, the director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “Our problem is we have a relatively small percentage of the adult population that is engaged in the labor force in the first place.” 

The labor force participation rate tracks the percentage of working age people who are either actively working or seeking employment. It’s currently 54.6%, the lowest in the nation and well below the national participation rate of 62.6%. And it has been in that last place position or extremely close to it for about five decades.  

To come closer to the national rate, the state would need to increase its workforce by roughly 100,000 people

But understanding the why behind the low rate is more difficult. In several interviews, economists told Mountain State Spotlight that a number of factors could contribute to West Virginia’s persistent labor force problem, including population decline and limited opportunities for economic mobility. There are also lower numbers of college graduates and the continued decline of once-prominent state industries to consider. 

It all combines to create a situation where the state struggles on two different sides: on one end there is an issue with retaining the current and future workers already living here. And on the other end, there is an issue with attracting out-of-state workers and their families who might move into the state if its workforce was doing better. As issues mount, a growing group of nonprofits, academics, and local governments see addressing the former as the most immediate concern.

How nonprofits are bringing new energy to addressing West Virginia’s workforce woes

After wrapping up a stint in the Army and returning to his hometown, Huntington native Trey Chambers was working in a restaurant and considering going back to school. But he was in his mid-twenties and wasn’t sure college was the best option, particularly once the pandemic hit.

That’s when a boss told him about NewForce, a technical skills program that provides a free six-month training in software development. Chambers was accepted last year, and after a busy few months juggling his restaurant job with front and back-end development training, he finished the program in January. 

Since then, he’s put his skills to use as a new web developer for Bulldog Creative, a Huntington advertising agency. In his current role he primarily helps create websites, using skills that he had struggled to build on his own before entering NewForce. 

“The only thing I had to risk was my time, and without this [opportunity] I would still be in the restaurant industry,” he said. 

Trey Chambers (far left, in blue) and other participants in NewForce’s coding skills development training program. Photo courtesy Generation West Virginia.

In some ways, the start of Chambers’ story is common among young people in West Virginia, many of whom face difficulty finding meaningful employment and gaining the skills vital to land better paying jobs. And to help address the problem nonprofits like Generation West Virginia, which runs NewForce, have stepped in to help with job training as a way to slow the brain drain. 

“I think that in West Virginia we have grown up with the understanding that to be successful you have to leave,” said Alex Weld, the executive director of Generation West Virginia. “We’ve got to be better about celebrating the opportunities here and making those opportunities clear for West Virginians.” 

Besides NewForce, Generation West Virginia is also trying to keep more young people in West Virginia through a nine-month fellowship program and its Career Connector, which connects job seekers and employers.

The resource was useful for Jessica Stidham, who moved to West Virginia with her husband in 2015. The Career Connector helped her land a new job as an assistant director of First Ascent, a new program aimed at developing and retaining other young workers in the state. 

For her, addressing the state’s workforce crisis is crucial, not only to improve economic conditions, but also to give workers something that she has found for herself here: a sense of fulfillment. 

“It is one thing to have a job with a steady income, that’s definitely important,” she said. “But being able to work and travel and have a good quality of life and ability to enjoy natural resources has [also] been a big draw.” 

But job training and networks are only part of the solution. 

“A lot of the barriers to the workforce are human,” said Coalfield Development founder Brandon Dennison. The organization aims to reimagine Southern West Virginia’s economy, taking an area once dominated by coal and transforming it to handle new industries.

Part of doing that, Dennison says, means working with people who face bigger challenges than skill gaps: people in recovery, people who have struggled to gain employment, and others who have faced significant barriers in a job search. 

“We see ourselves modeling a different and better way to do workforce development,” he said. “We know we can’t re-employ everyone that needs to be re-employed but we do create paid jobs for people who face severe barriers to employment.” 

Members of Generation West Virginia’s 2023 fellowship program listen to a presentation about career opportunities in tourism. Photo courtesy Generation West Virginia

Coalfield Development also plays a leading role in the Appalachian Climate Technology, or ACT Now Coalition. The group includes several nonprofits, state universities, municipalities and local governments, unions, and other groups, all focused on improving both economic and environmental conditions in the state. Last fall, the coalition was awarded a Build Back Better grant from the federal government, receiving $62.8 million and another $30 million in philanthropic funds to support its efforts.

Even so, nonprofit leaders like Dennison and Weld do face difficulties, especially with scale. Efforts to expand the workforce require a lot of money, and nonprofits aren’t guaranteed to reach every person in need of help. This means that even with the progress independent groups have accomplished, deeper solutions, statewide solutions, remain necessary. 

Increasing West Virginia’s workforce requires a wide-ranging list of solutions — many of them people-oriented

While the sorts of jobs and skills training offered by these nonprofit organizations, government offices like Workforce WV, and local community and technical colleges are in demand, closing a skills gap is only one aspect of what needs to be done to help West Virginia’s workforce.

There also needs to be a focus on what Deskins referred to as “human capital”: improving the conditions that affect a person’s interest in and ability to work. That can include issues with transportation access, health, substance abuse, discrimination, and previous interactions with the justice system. 

Another factor that economists identified as a particularly pressing — and potentially more easily solvable — issue is increasing access to child care. The latter is an especially significant factor for women, who have entered the workforce in significant numbers in recent decades, but who are often the first to leave due to child care reasons. West Virginia currently has the lowest female workforce participation rate in the country. 

“I think child care access is sort of an understudied thing in West Virginia, in terms of its contribution to labor force participation,” said Heather Stephens, the director of WVU’s Regional Research Institute. “We don’t have good child care access and that makes it very difficult for parents of young children.” 

The endgame goal then, is for a number of changes to happen that all contribute to better situations for workers. 

“I wish the problem was tax policy, because that is a problem that we could fix easily,” Deskins said. “But if you have a bad drug abuse problem, a bad health problem, it takes a long time, years, to fix those.”

Here’s why West Virginia has struggled to increase labor force participation for decades appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

South Dakota population on track to top 1 million by 2030 after ‘significant’ growth