BETHEL – Growing good-paying jobs and building strong, thriving communities in western Maine means refocusing contact with the Northern Forest and partnering with three other New England states.

That’s what a new study released on Wednesday morning by the Northern Forest Sustainable Economy Initiative touted.

Based on a balanced investment in business, community and environment, the blueprint for economic prosperity can help build a resilient economy and create jobs in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, according to members of the initiative’s steering committee.

“As far as the strategy goes, I think it’s just what we need,” Stephen Wight, a Newry selectman and one of the 18 statewide community and business representatives appointed to the committee in 2006 by Gov. John Baldacci.

“We need to get over the fact that the mills are gone and we need to get on with creating an economy. Now that we’ve got the strategy, we’ve got to get buy-in from state and local officials, and we’ve got to educate people. The future is bright, it’s just different.”

Home to 2 million people, the Northern Forest stretches 400 miles and encompasses 30 million acres in the four states.

According to the “Economic Resurgence in the Northern Forest” study, the region has unique opportunities due to the quality of its natural resources, which must be maintained across state lines to succeed.

The SEI strategy includes sparking the economy through creativity and business growth, regional marketing and encouraging the “buy-local” trend; strengthening the region’s economic backbone by investing in world-class telecommunications; improving transportation systems; and harnessing renewable energy.

Additional recommendations include preparing to meet future changes, coordinating and advocating as a region, and securing federal investment to support the strategy.

Another committee member, Robin Zinchuk of Bethel, agreed with Wight’s assessment.

“We feel that a lot of the future economy is going to be based on utilizing our natural resource base in new ways, and how some of those things tie back,” said Zinchuk, also the executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Here in our backyards of Rumford and Bethel and Oxford County, the telecommunications connectivity is an issue. In terms of new business growth, we’re going to attract business owners from away who want to come here for quality of life reasons.

“If they can function well in a high-speed Internet connectivity setting, they’re going to think about relocating here. But if they can’t, then that’s one deterrent to new business development, and we do have dead zones here in Oxford County, so, it’s a really big issue across the Northern Forest and, it’s an issue here in Oxford County,” Zinchuk said.

“I think the most important thing for people to understand is that there is a new day coming. People need to understand that life is going to go on and that it’s going to go on in a different way…. It’s all about being creative. In 1850, everybody was creative and they created the world as we know it. Now, we’ve been given the opportunity and it’s our turn,” Wight added.


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