SKOWHEGAN — What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear someone say “Somerset County”?
A burgeoning farm-to-table economy? The Kennebec River? The Skowhegan State Fair? Bernard Langlais sculptures? Lakewood Theater? The Margaret Chase Smith Library?
The Wesserunsett Arts Council and Main Street Skowhegan are gathering information about existing and future cultural resources in Somerset County with a downloadable public opinion survey asking people what they like and what they would like to see in the future for recreation, agriculture, the arts, history and the community in general.
There are three surveys in all, as the groups move to develop a Somerset Cultural Plan.
Kristina Cannon, executive director at Main Street Skowhegan, said part of the plan is to attract visitors to the area, be it for the historic buildings and parks, the grist mill in the former county jail, whitewater rafting in The Forks, Somerset Abbey in Madison or the planned Run of River whitewater park through Skowhegan.
“The importance of the surveys goes back to positioning Somerset County as a tourist destination,” Cannon said. “By gathering information and figuring out what our cultural assets are, we’ll be able to enhance them and use them to our advantage when it comes to attracting tourists.”
Cannon said the Maine Office of Tourism has offered to send the surveys out to their partners to gather information not just from local people, but also from outside of the area to see what’s attractive to visitors. She said cultural assets and attractions run the gamut from the recent brew fest in Skowhegan this past summer to the South Solon Meeting House.
“The definition of culture is a pretty big and vast description,” she said. “We want to make sure we are capitalizing on the assets that we already have and using them for economic development in the form of tourism.”
The Somerset Cultural Plan got started with public meetings in November at Good Will-Hinckley and later at Northern Outdoors, at Lakewood golf course and another in Pittsfield.
Along with the public opinion survey, there is a artist and performer survey and a business and cultural organization survey to identify goals to connect arts, culture and historic assets with the communities. All three of the surveys are available in hard copy to pick up and fill out from various town offices in the county and public libraries.
Surveys can be filled out and dropped off at the location where they are picked up.
The idea behind the three surveys is to collect thoughts and ideas from local community members, artists, cultural organizations and business owners, said Serena Sanborn, a member of the arts council board of directors and the Somerset Cultural Planning Committee.
“The whole idea behind the cultural plan is to make life better for us in Somerset,” Sanborn said in an interview. “It’s really asking the question, what do you love to do? What makes life great for you? And that’s an important question for a county, which has great recreational stuff, a lot of great food — all of those things — but what else can we add to make it even better?”
Sanborn said cultural events add to the quality of life, and that’s important to the overall health of the region.
Survey questions, according to Saskia Reinholt, a consultant working with the cultural planning group, include some about how community leaders across all sectors value culture, whether arts and cultural offerings are accessible and are relevant, and what Somerset County wants to be known for.
The survey also asks what ideas have been successful elsewhere and what are the most realistic, valuable and effective strategies to support Somerset County cultural development.
“We’re measuring supply and demand,” Reinholt said, “supply being the artists in the county and the cultural providers … — the museums, libraries, cultural organizations — to see what their needs are, if there are any gaps. And we measure demand, being public opinion and what people are interested in as far as arts and culture and what types of development that (they’d) like to see.”
She said the study also looks at the barriers and the participation in local events to explore “the reach, the value and the relevance” of arts and cultural resources in Somerset County and beyond. Reinholt said people living in neighboring counties also are important to the surveys as well, if county institutions want to attract newcomers to the local art and food scene, and to see what visitors think about the cultural opportunities in Somerset County.
The goal of the Somerset Cultural Plan is to find new methods to increase participation in cultural activities, enhance innovative economic development and strengthen the arts and cultural network, Reinholt said.
Reinholt said organizers hope at least 1 percent of the county’s population, or about 500 people, will respond to the public opinion survey, which is the standard for such surveys. On the business survey, people are asked if their business is farm-related, an art-, historic- or recreation-based endeavor or a service, such as web design and graphics. The artist survey asks where respondents create their art and what sort of facility or space the person would like to have available in Somerset County that are not available now.
Each survey takes five to 10 minutes to complete.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367