A town that caters to tourists and retirees looking for a quiet place to settle down. A town with good jobs that aren’t completely subject to the whims of industry. A prosperous town.

His scope is broad: a soap opera hall of fame, a modern assisted-living center, a cluster of boutique shops at the town’s gateway.

The first step to getting there: a movie theater.

“We’ve been hammering away at that for a while,” said Blampied, a real estate developer and a member of Rumford’s economic development committee. For over a year, a fellow committee member has called theater owners, courted them. “He’s been arguing why they should come and they argue why they shouldn’t. I don’t think he’s gotten very far.”

It’s hard to bring a theater to a town that’s losing money, jobs and people.

In its heyday of the 1960s, Rumford’s largest employer, the paper mill, employed over 3,000 people. Chemists. Accountants. Sales people. Machine workers. They were high-paying jobs, the kind that gave workers enough money to buy homes, shop local businesses and comfortably raise
families. Just over 10,000 people lived in Rumford then. The town got millions in tax revenue from the mill. The whole rural region was buoyed by its success.

Today, after waves of layoffs, the mill is down to about 700 employees. The latest blow was announced two weeks ago: another 100 jobs gone with the shutdown of another paper machine, leaving two in operation. With equipment being sold off, the mill’s valuation is expected to drop by a third; the town is slated to lose nearly $1 million in taxes annually because of it. Rumford’s population now hovers somewhere below 6,500.

So few that the once-thriving mill town can’t even attract a little movie theater.

Rumford is dealing with the same thing a lot of small Maine towns are facing — the loss of its largest employer. In Limestone, Loring Air Force Base pulled out all of the sudden. In other places, like Millinocket, which is also paper mill-dependent, there has been a slow shrinking, a trickling away until there’s almost nothing left.

Rumford residents debate whether their NewPage paper mill is on its way out or can hang on. What no one disputes: The mill is not the employment giant it once was. The painful repercussions are obvious: lost jobs, families that can’t pay their bills, local businesses with fewer customers, real estate values dipping, town tax revenue lagging.

But residents, town officials and some ardent Rumford supporters say the town will prosper once again thanks to its people, its natural beauty and its offerings.

While other people were moving out of town a few years ago, Blampied moved in.

“I just feel the potential here is stunning,” he said

“I want to be optimistic”

Rumford’s paper mill was built more than 100 years ago by Hugh Chisholm, a millionaire drawn to the area by the Androscoggin River and the Rumford Falls, which would provide power to the mill. It was called the Oxford Paper Co. then.

The mill was sold and resold over the years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that those sales started happening with some frequency.

“We’d never seen that before. Normally those businesses are held for a decade or more,” said Town Manager Carlo Puiia.

Puiia grew up in town. As a high-schooler he worked in the mill’s accounting office.

The accounting office that no longer exists.

“They reduced that and then they became centralized,” he said.

Other jobs slowly vanished, too. And with those jobs, the people who filled them.

When Puiia started his freshman year in high school in 1974, he was one of about 240 students at Rumford High School. When he graduated in 1978, his class had just 176.

“Families moved away,” he said. “They’d shut down the chemistry department. Then later they shut down the accounting department. Sales was another thing they used to have. The sales people now are located in different areas. There were a lot of jobs that were support jobs, they weren’t just paper-making jobs. I think now what they’re trying to do is just keep the paper-making jobs inside the mill.”

In January, Olin Bernard was one of 130 people laid off. He had worked in the mill for 37 years, his latest job as shift supervisor. He wasn’t surprised when the end came.

“Being on salary, you kind of figure every day could be your last day,” Bernard said.

Some of the oldest laid-off workers retired while some of the younger ones went back to school to train for new careers. Others, like Bernard, found work elsewhere. But many have not.

In August, Rumford’s unemployment
rate was 14.6 percent, nearly twice the state rate of 7.7
percent. On Sept. 11, NewPage — owner since 2005 — announced it was shutting down another paper machine. One hundred more jobs lost.

Because Rumford’s well-being is so tied to the mill’s, the slow slide concerns a lot of people.

Dave Marchand runs a hot dog stand outside the Rumford Information Center. Workers often walk up from the mill to grab lunch. Business has not been good lately.

“This year they’re coming up asking how much a hot dog is and then they’re counting out their change to see if they can afford it,” he said.

Sue Billings and her family run a farm and greenhouse, sell produce at the Rumford Information Center and run a farm stand on Route 2, a major road through the area. She had been making $130 to $140 a day at the farm stand. Lately she’s been making $40 a day. She believes the loss is tied to the lagging mill.

Matt Bean, president of the mill’s steelworkers union, can’t even run an errand at the local bank without someone there asking him how NewPage is doing.

“I want to be optimistic, but each time some of these things (layoffs) happen it seems like it takes a piece of my optimistic feeling away,” Bean said. “But I’m still trying to stay optimistic.”

“There was a tremendous amount of potential here”

NewPage itself is also trying to stay optimistic.

The largest coated papermaker in the United States, NewPage blames recent layoffs on the faltering economy. Companies are spending less on advertising now, and less advertising means less demand for NewPage’s glossy paper.

But spokeswoman Janet Hall said company has leadership, vision and hope for the future when the economy turns around.

“NewPage is definitely in the game to win,” Hall said.

Still, when Bean asks leadership about the paper mill’s future, he said, “The feedback we get from the company is they don’t have a crystal ball.”

Despite the knocks the town has taken over the years and despite the uncertainty that continues to surround its largest employer, Rumford counts itself as down but definitely not out. It’s slowly but surely working to rejuvenate itself.

The town has started offering more community events. It’s worked to attract young businesses to its business park. It’s looking at redeveloping part of town. And last year, at Blampied’s urging, the town formed a Rumford-specific economic development committee on top of the regional one that already exists. Blampied is a member.

Although the town has some problems, he, like others, sees the opportunities here.

In 2005, Blampied was a real estate developer living in Sanford. Home prices were skyrocketing in southern Maine and he began looking elsewhere for his next venture. In Rumford he says he found a friendly, safe, picturesque town with real estate prices so low that they were almost unbelievable.

“I was just stunned there was this supply in the housing market,” Blampied said. “It seemed to me there was a tremendous amount of potential here.”

He bought a house for $30,000, put another $10,000 to $12,000 into it and moved in.

Blampied now advocates for the town, both as a member of the economic development committee and as the creator of the “Grow Rumford!” Web site, which promotes local businesses, advertises area homes under $50,000 and proposes new business ideas.

Among those business ideas: a soap opera hall of fame, a unicycle museum or a tobacco use prevention museum.

“You’d have bus loads of school kids,” he said. “Every school in Maine would have to take a field trip to the tobacco use prevention museum.”

Blampied admits they are unusual ideas — “Wild and crazy,” he said — but he believes the town needs to push for something, to be creative and aggressive in marketing itself.

“The town is just sort of trying to find its feet with an economic development effort,” he said.

And if it does, he believes, people will come.

Brian and Jessica Nichols also took a gamble on Rumford. Last year they opened Brian’s Bistro, an elegant, reasonably priced restaurant in a section of the former Harris Hotel. Brian had worked at the last restaurant in that space. That place went out of business. The Nichols jumped in.

“We saw a niche for it here,” Jessica said.

The building has dark woods and an art deco design. Patrons can eat
paninis and designer burgers while they gaze out expansive windows — at
the mill and the logging trucks that rumble down Route 108.

A lot of the restaurant’s diners come from local businesses. Some are area residents. A few are mill workers. The Nichols’ worry about the mill, the town. But with the town’s natural beauty, its creative and qualified workers, and its ingenuity, they also foresee a brighter future.

“We’re proof new business can come here,” Brian said.

“I wouldn’t want to live here because of the mill”

Will others take a chance on a flagging mill town? And how should Rumford promote itself?

Opinions are mixed. Some residents say a casino would rejuvenate the town. Others say a family-friendly water park would be better. Some want Rumford to do more to encourage small businesses to move in. Others say it should work on getting a large call center or another industry-driven business that would bring in a bunch of jobs all at once.

Still others say that Rumford — a quaint little New England town — should promote tourism. Nestled in the middle of western Maine, it offers natural wilderness, awe-inspiring falls and beautiful views from almost any location in town.

Rumford is currently a minor draw for tourists. People drive through on their way to go skiing, camping or sightseeing. Sometimes they stop at the Rumford Information Center, take a walk out to look at the falls or snap photos of the town’s giant Paul Bunyan statue.

On one sunny morning last week, Wanda Murphy and her three traveling companions stopped to pose for photos with the statue. The women — three from Canada and one from California — were passing through on their drive across America. They thought Rumford was beautiful.

Mostly.

“I wouldn’t want to live here because of the mill,” said Wanda Murphy of Nova Scotia, glancing at the smokestacks in the distance. “But it was nice to see the historical stuff around the mill.”

Some people say too many tourists feel the same way and it will be too difficult for Rumford to become a sought-after place to live, work or play while the mill is running.

“We haven’t been able to do it yet,” said Len Greaney, a Rumford resident and former town manager.

Others say the mill must be an integral part of any revitalization, any future.

“Realistically,” said Bean, the union president, “I don’t know how Rumford could survive.”

Puiia, the town manager, takes the middle ground. He believes the town’s century-old paper mill will survive — “We’re being hopeful,” he said — but he also believes the town could be destination spot. He said its low real estate prices and quiet community are already a draw for young retirees looking for refuge from the big city.

“The lifestyle here is very attractive,” he said.

Blampied agrees about the lifestyle, even if he hasn’t been able to woo a soap opera hall of fame or a movie theater. Yet.

“I don’t think Rumford will be 15,000 people. I think it’ll be smaller. But I think it can be quite prosperous,” he said. “Eventually.”

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Rumford numbers:

August 2009 unemployment rate: 14.6 percent

State unemployment rate: 7.7 percent

(Source: Maine Department of Labor)


Population:
1900: 3,770
1910: 6,777
1920: 8,576
1930: 10,340
1940: 10,230
1950: 9,954
1960: 10,005
1970: 9,363
1980: 8,240
1990: 7,078
2000: 6,472
2008: 6,310
Source: Census)


School enrollment
1970: 2,473
1980: 1,495
1990: 1,080
2000: 1,033

(Source: Maine State Planning Office)

Number of jobs in town
1990: 4,158
1997: 3,576
Drop: 14 percent
(Source: Maine State Planning Office)

Limestone has been there. So has Dexter. Millinocket still is.

Rumford’s experience with the shrinking of a major employer is nothing new to small towns in Maine.

At its height, Loring Air Force Base had a military population of 10,000 and employed thousands of others from Limestone and the surrounding area. Military parents enrolled their children in local schools, sending millions in federal education aid to the school system. The base pumped millions of dollars into the local economy.

And then, in 1994, Loring closed.

It was sudden and shocking to Limestone, a rural, northern Maine town with few other significant job opportunities. Unlike other towns that lose a major employer, Limestone got some federal help and the base was quickly redeveloped. But that barely softened the blow.

Some people found jobs at the new industrial park, but pay was generally much lower than they were used to in their old federal positions. Others left the area to find work. Between 1990 and 2000, Limestone’s population plummeted from nearly 10,000 to just over 2,300, devastating both the town’s tax base and its school system. Limestone went from 1,400 students to less than 300 almost overnight. The school system was forced to lay off more than 100 workers and move all students — kindergarten through grade 12 — into one building.

Fifteen years later, Limestone’s population hasn’t rebounded and isn’t likely to, but the town has tried to adjust. Any business — from the little print shop downtown to the new sandwich place — is lauded. Small growth — an expansion at Caldwell’s Auto — is celebrated.

“We’ve worked very diligently on development and we’re still working on it,” said Town Manager Donna Bernier. “I guess you never give up on that.”

Dexter started losing its largest employer — Dexter Shoe — in 2001. Over nearly a year, the manufacturer slowly pulled out of town, taking a couple thousand jobs with it overseas. At one point, Town Manager Dave Pearson said, the company told Dexter workers to train the Chinese workers who would be taking over their jobs.

“Which I thought was just an obscene thing for them to do,” he said.

The state set up a rapid response center in the middle of town to offer training, job placement and advice to laid-off workers, but it couldn’t make jobs magically appear in the small Penobscot County town. Some residents stuck around and commuted to work in larger cities nearby. Others moved.

“Some people didn’t find jobs,” Pearson said. “I don’t know what happened to them.”

The town itself lost about $12 million of its tax base when the shoe factory shutdown. Dexter Shoe still maintains a distribution warehouse in the town, still employs about 100 people, Pearson said, but that’s nothing close to what it was.

With its ready workforce, it originally thought it would be a prime candidate for another big employer.

“But that didn’t happen,” Pearson said.

Eight years after Dexter Shoe’s closure was announced, the town is still struggling to rejuvenate its economy. Area farmers are now working to form an agriculture co-op to draw business to the region. The town is looking at developing windmill and hydro power.

Dexter no longer pins its hopes on large industry moving in.

“We have some little rays of hope,” Pearson said. “I don’t even bother trying to attract giant shoe shops or things anymore. I think it’s a total waste of time. If small businesses come in we try to help the small businesses.”

Millinocket has been dealing with layoffs at its area paper mills since 1986. They employed about 4,400 people back then, said Millinocket Town Manager Gene Conlogue. East Millinocket’s mill is now down to 500 workers. Millinocket’s mill could have 175 jobs — if it ever comes back on line after its indefinite shutdown a year ago.

The slow slide has hurt the town, and has hurt the area businesses that relied on the mills and millworkers for income.

“It’s part of an economic downward spiral,” Conlogue said.

As the mills have declined, Millinocket has tried to bring in new business. One major newcomer: a biomass boiler manufacturer that could move into town in the next year, bringing with it 100 jobs with good pay, good benefits and a good future.

“That’s the major one we’re working on right now. We have a couple of others just kind of in the wings, but not enough to talk about at this point,” Conlogue said.

Limestone, Dexter and Millinocket’s advice to Rumford and other towns dealing with layoffs: move quickly, think long term, diversify to be less dependent on a single industry.

“We’re survivors, this whole community,” said Bernier in Limestone. “We’re all survivors.”

[email protected]

Brian Nichols, owner of Brian’s Bistro in Rumford, said, “We’re proof that new businesses can come here.”


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