SKOWHEGAN — What do you get when 60 people gather in discussion groups and talk about the future?
You get ideas. Lots of ideas.
Zip lines. Broadband. Kayaking. Tourism. Edible plant gardens. Pedestrian friendly downtown streets. Heritage grains. Hotels. Farms. Making your town attractive enough to keep young people from leaving and getting them to come back if they do leave.
All that and more was discussed Thursday night during a public forum at the Skowhegan Municipal Building Council Room hosted by Main Street Skowhegan on what will shape the future of Skowhegan.
Common themes Thursday night included the Kennebec River and the proposed Run of River whitewater park, the Opera House, high speed Internet and making sure young people have things to do and are engaged in the community.
“They are talking about Skowhegan being a food hub, retention of youth, more recreational opportunities like zip lines, an ice area, a public pool and the Run of River — the river comes up all four times,” said Matt Dubois, of The Bankery and a member of the Main Street Skowhegan board, which organized the forum.
The four areas Dubois referred to were posed as questions each group was asked to respond to. Large charts were taped to the walls at each of the four focus groups, listing top ideas and concerns.
The questions were what opportunities could be game changers in Skowhegan; what drives economic development; what roles do heritage, arts and culture play and what is the vision of Skowhegan in 10 years.
Dan Tilton, of Skowhegan Savings Bank and a member of the Main Street steering committee, said he saw recurring themes that others observed Thursday night.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about the Run of River, things for our youth,” Tilton said. “For any of our kids, I think it’s important that they have things to do — to keep ’em out of trouble, and the more you engage them in the community and the more they’re involved, the more they are likely to stay here.
“We want to help them stay here, and part of that is introducing it to them early so you help them build in the process.”
Feedback gathered from the forum will help Main Street draft a strategic plan that will provide guidance for projects and initiatives for Skowhegan for the next several years, Main Street Executive Director Kristina Cannon said. Maine Street hired a consultant — Shanna Cox, of Lewiston and Project Tipping Point — and formed a steering committee made up of representatives from the town, the business community, the Wesserunsett Arts Council and recreation enthusiasts, artists, farmers and public health officials to lead the planning process.
The final plan “will not just sit on a shelf,” Cannon said.
“Instead, it will include innovative strategies for economic and community development and articulate projects and initiatives for Skowhegan — specific action steps that will excite and inspire,” she said.
Main Street has partnered with the Somerset Cultural Planning Committee, an arm of the Wesserunsett Arts Council that is preparing to write a cultural plan for our county, she said.
Resident David James said he saw one of the themes people kept coming back to was farming and agriculture and growing Skowhegan as a food hub.
“There’s a lot of farms around here and we have a very strong farmers market and developing farming as part of tourism — a lot of traffic goes through here,” he said. “With the grist mill leading the way in terms of heritage grains that are sustainable and how our whole food industry is moving away from large agricultural mega farms, I think we are well positioned, relating to farm-to-table”
Traffic themes also abounded, including capitalizing on the confluence of U.S. Route 2 and U.S. Route 201 in Skowhegan. Others, such as Andy Russakoff, suggested establishing a satellite campus of Kennebec Valley Community College in Skowhegan because the presence of a college raises any community that has one.
Others, such as Katie Ouellette, said Skowhegan needs more motels and hotels and more, larger restaurants to feed all the visitors once they find out about Skowhegan.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367