Challenges, opportunities of county’s resource-based economy discussed

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FARMINGTON – Representatives of Threshold to Maine Resource Conservation and Development Area Inc. met with several people active in various local community and nonprofit organizations today, to discuss some of the opportunities in Franklin County for economic growth.

Threshold to Maine is a program that was created back in 1970, as an extension of the Food and Agriculture Act of 1962. It encompasses York, Cumberland, Oxford and Franklin County, representing nearly half of the people living in the state. Funded through both federal and some local money, the organization is governed by a board which consists of representatives from each county.

Rather than directly trying to implement new programs, the RC&D program instead acts as a resource for the many organizations that work within the four counties to improve and protect natural resource-based economies. This includes attempts to ensure sub stainable resource bases, like farmland, woodlots and freshwater lakes, or helping communities attract new business to their towns.

“Certainly Franklin County has benefited from RC&D,” County Commissioner Fred Hardy, who serves on the board as the commissioners’ representative, said. “They’ve done a tremendous amount of work.”

Typically the group takes eight to ten new projects a year, completing roughly the same number. RC&D Coordinator Mark Hews said that a project can vary from facilitating a few meetings to being far greater in scope. In the town of Strong, for example, Hews and RC&D have been working with other organizations for years as mill after mill has closed down.

Projects are submitted to RC&D and then given a score by the committee. High scoring applications are accepted, while others are directed toward other possible partners.

Current interests in Franklin County include a growing movement dedicated to maintaining farmland and keeping the region’s long tradition of agriculture a viable one. An April 28 meeting on the subject attracted over 100 people, and Hews noted that one idea had been to set up a commission to study the issue. RC&D helped set up a similar group in Rumford, called the River Valley Agriculture Commission.

“When you talk about agriculture everyone’s eyes glaze over,” Hardy joked, “after all you can go right across the river to the Hannafords, there’s plenty of food over there. But this is important.”

Those at the meeting also discussed forestry, and the opportunities and challenges presented by a high demand for timber. While more aggressive techniques can result in more money, they also can adversely affect the area’s tourism potential. Combining industries, such as implementing agri-tourism strategies, has been something that some communities have been looking at.

One of the biggest challenges has been the increasing valuation of land. MAny communities cannot afford to purchase waterfront properties to preserve lake access, and some farmers can’t afford to not sell pieces of their land to developers. Other businesses, such as sporting camps, are simply being forced out of business as valuation level rises.

RC&D will be meeting in Franklin County twice a year, in addition to their usual quarterly meetings.

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