New ‘recreation zone’ targets rural tourism

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Businesses in some of Maine’s most remote areas could benefit from grants and low-interest loans

AUGUSTA – Tourism related businesses north and east of the Androscoggin River will be invited to talks with state officials this summer as they try to develop a strategy to boost spending and investment in Maine’s largest industry.

Strict eligibility standards defined in a new law cuts off some of Maine’s busiest tourism areas from grants and loans backed by the state under the Pine Tree Recreation Zone program. But that is precisely what bill sponsor Rep. Stanley Moody, D-Manchester, had in mind when he introduced the concept legislation.

“This program will focus on small, struggling businesses in natural-resources-based tourism,” Moody said in a recent interview. “A lot of these businesses are not bankable, their facilities need upgrading and they are very much mom-and-pop oriented.”

Only one-third of Maine’s 31 Labor Market Areas would qualify for the program, chiefly because most exceed the population density limit of less than 30 people per square mile. The 10 areas now included in the recreation zone include: Rumford, Farmington, Presque Isle, Houlton, Dover-Foxcroft, Millinocket, Lincoln, Machias, Calais and Skowhegan LMAs.

The state was divided into two parts, using the Androscoggin River as the boundary, so that even rural areas south and west of the Androscoggin that meet the per-mile population limit still would not qualify for the program.

The river was used as the boundary because it was one of only two east-west dividing points in the state, other than the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“It’s just an arbitrary” boundary and could change as the program strategy is developed, Moody said.

Moody said the program might offer low-interest loans or outright grants to help the smaller tourism businesses stay afloat, particularly hunting and fishing camps and other outdoor operations in some of the most remote areas of Maine.

It also might shift state tourism advertising dollars to those small, rural areas rather than the so-called “Gold Coast” or busy inland tourism attractions.

Moody’s bill was passed as emergency legislation so that the state Department of Economic and Community Development can begin the process of gathering opinions from the public and the businesses within the zone.

Other departments that must also join the talks include agriculture, conservation, inland fisheries and wildlife, environmental protection and marine resources.

“This program is mostly for the little guys that don’t have the resources” of larger tourism enterprises, Dick Davies, an advisor to Gov. John Baldacci, said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of these folks out there.”

The bill calls for at least four public meetings. The strategic plan implementing the program must be submitted to the Legislature by next Feb. 15, 2007.

“We want to design a program with flexibility so it helps lots of people,” said Davies, who advises the governor on natural resources issues and will lead the strategy committee.

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