6 Maine teams get $375K to take on chronic local issues as part of Boston Fed challenge
Working Communities Challenge grants awarded after teams identify economic concerns
The Katahdin region in the woods of central Maine is known for its wildlife and natural beauty, but it’s struggled to retain young residents during the past 15 years.
“Local youth still hold on to the long-standing narrative that there are no jobs here since the paper mills and factories closed, so they have to leave,” said Lucy Van Hook, a director of community development in the region.
But job opportunities in outdoor recreation and tourism are growing, she said. And with the help of a $375,000 grant through the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Communities Challenge, a team of residents may soon be able to change the story.
“Our long-term goal is to increase the social connection and economic well-being of our communities,” she said. “If we're successful, our median age will drop below 50, (and) more young people will feel connected to the community and participate in a thriving job market.”
The Katahdin region hosts one of six teams from across Maine that were selected to receive $375,000 each in funding over the next three years through the challenge, which is part of the Boston Fed’s Working Places initiative. The grant program focuses on supporting local collaboration to strengthen the economies of northern New England’s rural towns, regions, and smaller cities. In 2020, Maine became the fifth state in the region to adopt the initiative.
Prabal Chakrabarti, a Boston Fed executive vice president and community affairs officer, said during a virtual award ceremony Thursday that the initiative aims to bring together local and national institutions from the public and private sectors.
“(The Boston Fed) is going to be deeply involved in this effort,” he said. “We’re going to learn … how the real economy is working in the small cities and towns of Maine, and that's going to help us make better decisions.”
The challenge is backed by more than $2.7 million in philanthropic and business contributions, and federal grants, along with an additional $1 million in federal funding through the state. A jury from the Maine Working Communities Challenge’s local steering committee initially planned to pick five teams from a group of eight finalists, but the state recently secured funding for an additional team.
“By working together, we're expanding job training and work opportunities … strengthening our outdoor economy … (and) creating welcoming, inclusive communities,” Gov. Janet Mills said.
Award recipients share team goals
During the virtual event, team members discussed how they plan to tackle the challenges in their communities:
The Maine Highlands is often described as one of the oldest and least-educated areas in the state, said Sue Mackey Andrews, a member of the local Working Communities team.
“We, however, know that our region's greatest asset is its people, who are caring and generous and who are deeply committed to this region,” she said.
Initially, the team plans to focus on helping youth and older residents, as well as increasing the workforce participation of people with disabilities, Andrews said. They also seek to better understand the root causes of poverty in the area, and how they can be addressed.
Greater Bangor is also struggling to retain youth, and it’s feeling the impacts of the opioid crisis and the heightened instability caused by COVID-19. Tanya Emery, director of community and economic development for the city of Bangor, said the regional Working Communities team plans to help residents find career paths with livable wages.
“Our team is focused on increasing job training and skill development in the food space and trades, which both have consistently strong demand for labor,” she said. “We also intend to increase access and awareness of resources for entrepreneurial ventures.”
The Lewiston Auburn team’s goal is to address wealth gaps and increase economic opportunities, particularly among young members of the Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other communities of color.
“Collaborative leadership … looks good on paper, but it’s been a tough road to make that happen,” said Ayesha Hall, a team member. “But I'm proud of us as a team, and I'm proud to say that we are modeling what that actually looks like.”
The Sagadahoc County team aims to decrease hopelessness among youth – many of whom are struggling with depression, substance abuse, and homelessness – by creating a support system that includes opportunities for mentoring, job training, and education, as well as access to healthcare.
“In 10 years, our vision is for Sagadahoc County youth to be thriving, well-equipped, and eager to enter into the workforce, resulting in a flourishing local economy and a healthy community,” said Jamie Dorr, executive director of the Midcoast Youth Center in Bath.
Charles Rudelitch and Elizabeth Neptune, members of the Working Communities partnership between Washington County and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said they plan to expand collaborative efforts to support families and reduce poverty.
“We have high rates of unemployment on both Passamaquoddy reservations, and we have lots of jobs in Washington County that remain unfilled, so this really is going to help build that bridge between Washington County and the tribe,” said Neptune, who serves as the tribal representative.
Learn more about the Boston Fed’s Working Communities Challenge and other Working Places initiatives here.
Media inquiries can be directed to Michael Woeste at Michael.Woeste@bos.frb.org.