SKOWHEGAN — Designers of a newly released cultural plan for Somerset County say they want to create a new economic base in central Maine by tapping into assets already in place and creating a destination economy and new jobs along the way.

Tourism already is an important economic driver for Somerset County and could be further enhanced by leveraging the region’s creative resources through marketing and development, said Skowhegan resident Jon Kimbell, chairman of the Somerset Cultural Planning Committee, a project of Wesserunsett Arts Council, which created the plan.

The new 25-page study called the Somerset County Rural Cultural Plan, released last week, was presented to the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen for inclusion on the warrant for the annual Town Meeting in June. It is being sent out to all Somerset County municipalities as town meeting time approaches.

“We’re not trying to create anything new here,” Kimbell said. “We’re simply trying to recognize and identify what already exists because we think we’ve got a huge story to tell here.”

Just as the coast of Maine has its own identity for attracting visitors and creating an economy, so does central Maine with its recreation attractions, visual and performing arts, its burgeoning food and beverage hub, farm-to-table movement, its historic assets and connections to French Canada and Native Americans, all with the mighty Kennebec River roaring at its side, Kimbell said.

“We just have not done enough with those assets to let the rest of the world know that they’re here,” he said. “We’re trying to find a new economic base for the people who live here.”

Kimbell said the region has lost most of the mills and shoe shops that once drove the economy in central Maine. Now it’s time to regroup and revitalize.

In a letter introducing the cultural plan to the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen, Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, said the plan developed over the last two years is a road map for future vitality and economic success.

Cannon said getting voter approval of the plan at Town Meeting will be good as the plan is implemented and will help procure grant money for projects identified in the plan.

“We don’t want money or anything other than the town to approve it as the recognized cultural plan for our region,” Cannon wrote. “We are asking all other towns in Somerset County to do the same thing.”

Margi Johnson Browne, planning committee vice-chairman and owner of Lakewood Golf Course, agreed, saying that getting the word out about the plan will go a long way to implementing the many ideas being presented.

“We are excited about the completion of the plan and are looking forward to spreading the word,” she said. “The next step is for towns, schools and cultural organizations to adopt the plan and move forward with implementation projects. Lots of great work ahead of us and wonderful opportunities for Somerset County.”

Kimbell said the plan will create opportunities for new lodging facilities, restaurants, brew pubs and other tourist attractions along U.S. Route 201 — the backbone of Maine — all the way into Quebec. He said the plan involves what Main Street Skowhegan is trying to do with a proposed white water park called Run of River and revitalization efforts underway at the Skowhegan Opera House.

Kimbell said the Wesserunsett Arts Council, which completed the cultural plan, is composed of three committees — open arts, studios, performance and visual artists; the WXNZ-FM radio station in Skowhegan at the converted former county jail; and the Somerset Cultural Planning Committee.

A $10,000 grant from the Maine Arts Commission was used to get started on the cultural plan. The Maine Community Foundation followed with two more grants, one for $5,000 and one for $5,500. The initial money was used to hire two consultants, Chris Papagni of CP Management in Portland and Reinholt Consulting LLC.

The Betterment Foundation provided two $10,000 grants to hire Mary Haley as project coordinator. Haley also works at Main Street Skowhegan. In addition to the grants, the committee raised another $25,000 on its own to move things along.

Kimbell said within the context of the plan, the committee wants to identify and connect with as many artists and cultural institutions in the county as they can and get them to communicate with one another. They also want to stress the wide range of cultural assets in the area, from museums and rural art studios to breweries and live music venues to encourage tourism.

The Somerset Planning Committee held nine public meetings in Fairfield, at Good Will-Hinckley, The Forks, Jackman, Skowhegan and two meetings each in Madison and Pittsfield.

Kimbell said new connections helped forge alliances with several community cultural groups including Bossov Ballet, Maine Huts & Trails, Maine Grain Alliance, Skowhegan Opera House, farm-to-table restaurants, Main Street Skowhegan, the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine and town managers in Jackman, Pittsfield, Madison, and Skowhegan, who all helped in the planning project.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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