Man with a Plan
For Matt Polstein, what began as a summer job guiding rafters down the Kennebec River has turned into a North Woods empire that converts the state's rivers, mountains, and trees into cold, hard cash. Two million dollars worth of it each year, to be exact. In the past twenty-five years Polstein's New England Outdoor Center has grown from operating out of broken-down school buses to the seven-acre Twin Pine Camps, a sprawling campus that offers year-round activities and camping and lodging in the shadow of Mount Katahdin.Polstein and his wife, Wendy, also opened one of the best restaurants north of Bangor. Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that this college dropout employs some two-dozen local Mainers in a town hard hit by a declining timber industry. The Portland native also serves on the Millinocket Town Council, where his ideas for rebuilding the local economy have earned him some vicious hate mail, in addition to just blank stares.
But apparently he's just been getting warmed up. Now the forty-four-year-old father of two is proposing a $15-million upscale ecotourism resort that would lure 400 visitors at a time to the Baxter State Park gateway, a project that Polstein says could set the bar for similar developments in the North Woods.
How do you know that the market exists for an upscale resort in the Katahdin region?
In truth, we haven't as yet done the traditional "hire a consultant" thing to define the market for us. Most of our thinking on this has to do with our entrepreneurial spirit and practical experience in running Twin Pine Camps and the identification of a portion of our customer base that's very happy with the natural resource product and finds the area appealing, but seems to be seeking more in the way of an amenity-based service. Right now camping is a significant part of our base — a lot of our rafters camp — but that number has been diminishing steadily over the last four or five years, so in our new resort we will not be offering camping.
Who do you hope to attract to the North Woods?
We think it'll be baby boomers looking for a high-value experience. Our ideal customer is a reasonably financially secure family that places a strong emphasis on a high-value vacation experience where they can learn something if they want to or just relax in a beautiful setting with nice amenities, and where they can develop a greater appreciation for the diverse issues confronting someone involved in managing a large forested area. The model that fits are the people who are coming and staying at Twin Pine Camps now; it offers, with a lesser amenity base, the kind of experience we plan to expand.
What do you think tourists want out of a North Woods experience?
I've always thought that the challenge for this area is how we brand the Maine woods experience. Everything we hear — studies we read, what we can see in our guests' eyes — is that real, unique, natural experiences are what people want. You know, even younger people don't want to be fooled; while they may play with their Game Boys and listen to their iPods, they don't want to be messed with — they want what is real. But how do we brand that, how do we get people excited about coming to Maine? I don't have the answer to that.
Can the North Woods overcome the distance obstacle in attracting clients from major urban centers like New York and Boston?
For a lot of people, a five-hour drive out of Boston to get the kind of experience that's unique to northern Maine is not too daunting. It's been a pleasant change for us since 9/11 to see people, particularly families, trending back toward a longer vacation: four to seven days, instead of just the two- or three-day quick getaway. That serves our area better, because it helps make the travel time seem a little less relevant. Millinocket also has a decent municipal airport that can attract people with private planes or charters — we're only an hour from Bangor — and our customer mix involves many more people that are flying to Maine and vacationing here, as opposed to driving here from Connecticut or New York.
Maine offers the values that people seem to seek: safety, a welcoming environment, peaceful and secluded areas, and that's getting harder and harder to find.
What's your opinion of the proposal to create a Maine Woods National Park?
Well, discussing a national park and living in Millinocket is a dangerous thing, so I've probably given it less thought and been more cautious about being involved than I might have had I not been a resident here. But I think that the North Woods national park model as defined by RESTORE is not a good one for our area, because it precludes the very important role that timber harvesting, whether it's for wood products or paper products, currently plays economically in our region. The loss of 3.2 million acres to the timber industry would be a serious economic problem for not only northern Maine, but all of Maine. I know they've done studies that say that recreation could replace all that, and recreation can replace some of the value lost, but the activity generated by timber harvesting goes far beyond the payroll of the people at the mill. It is the backbone of our economy here, and while we may lose it over the next thirty or forty years, it would be very unwise of us to do anything that puts more pressure on that industry. Trees grow sustainably when well managed, and we should be taking advantage of them for as long as we can.
Maine is a state that has always really valued local control, and I've learned very clearly that the decisions regarding the management of our national parks and national forests very often have very little to do with what's most important for the local environment or community, and have far more to do with who's in power in Washington and what's important to them.
Fewer tourists have been coming to Maine during the past few years. How do you think this trend can be reversed?
The status of visitation to the forested portion of Maine is at either no growth or a decline, and I think to some extent that's driven by the fact that the amenities that people want are not available in this area. To the extent that we don't address the demands of this new consumer base, we're going to continue to see that decline.
Having been in business for about twenty-five years in this area, one of the things that's always struck me is the fact that if the state's bias is to provide campgrounds and campsites for tourists, the economic value of that tourist's visit is naturally limited by the maximum dollar amount you can charge for a campsite, which is not very much. So a customer base trend that moves us toward having nicer lodging, with more investment in physical assets, is a good thing for this area because it will actually take us out of a historic environment where tourists slept on the ground and didn't spend much money. As opposed to an environment where people come, sleep in a more managed environment, spend more money, create more employment opportunity, and create more tangible, diverse economic benefit. And perhaps because they're a softer traveler, they have a smaller footprint on the resource. They don't need to go as far into the resource space to get the type of experience or gratification that the more historic aggressive camper might have.
If we are given permission to build this resort in an unorganized territory, I'm sure there are people who are going to ask if that will open the floodgates for additional development. I think that if it does, this is another responsibility that our project has: there's a need for us to establish a high bar for standards for this type of relatively large development. We want it to be something that people will look to at the end of the day and say, "That's the way development should be done," to not only minimally impact the aesthetics or natural resource base, but also maximally impact from a positive standpoint a broader economic shift in the area.
Some of the people who have been heavily engaged in trying to understand and support the timber industry are pretty darn pessimistic about the long-term viability of a broad-based timber economy in northern Maine. It's a radically different tapestry of ownership today: it used to be all paper companies that owned land, and now there are none. It's all private individuals, investment pools, groups with very different objectives for their land.
This area is the focus of so much attention — the proposed aquisition of land around Katahdin Lake, all the money that's gone into conservation easements, the fragile economic environment of our two mills in this town — and making the right decisions here have the ability to have a huge impact on what happens all along the forested fringe of Maine.
Your resort proposal and some of your votes on the town council have made you the subject of local criticism. Has this affected you on a personal level?
The worst low of it is that we have actually received some pretty offensive hate mail referencing our Jewish heritage. Every indication, and certainly the opinion from the U.S. Attorney's Office, is that it's related to local goings on — it's not something random and unrelated. That hurts, and it's certainly counterproductive. I feel as an elected official and as a public personality in this area that I get what I deserve; I make the decision to take the positions I do or to run for town office, and so if I get abused for it that was by my own free choice. I feel less comfortable with that when it comes to my wife, and I will feel much less comfortable again when it comes to my children bearing the burden of my perhaps being a pioneer of new thoughts.
There's a small band of people who are very vocal and, frankly, very unfair about the way that they would position us in the context of these discussions and issues. For the most part we remind ourselves that the real noise comes from this small group of people. Coming into the last election I'd started to lose faith that it was a small group, but one of the great things about the election was that it reassured us that while the silent majority may be largely silent, they remain the majority, and they appreciate the values we bring to discussions about the future of this area.
In Millinocket, the split seems to be between those who favor developing the town through manufacturing and those who favor growth through tourism. Do you think there's any middle ground?
There's only survival if we achieve middle ground. One of the funniest accusations that my wife and I and our company have gotten is that we're anti-manufacturing. It kills me to hear people say that. We run a restaurant in Millinocket, and a portion of our market is tourists, but the backbone of our market is businesspeople who come here or have good-paying jobs because they're involved in the manufacturing sector. If the mill shut down, my restaurant would shut down. If the hospital shut down, my restaurant would shut down. If someone else came to Millinocket with a 200-person plant — that's a reach, but if it happened — we'd be some of the happiest people in town. A base of manufacturing business or other employment is critical, even to those of us that are in the tourism industry.
Depending on whether you've lived here all your life or you more recently moved here, you tend to look at the Katahdin region as either poor and struggling or very wealthy. People that have always lived here think it's not what it was, so it's weak or doesn't have the resources that it takes to make things happen, but we still have two major mills that contribute tremendously to our tax base, and so we have the ability to invest in doing the right things to position our community for the future.
There's a portion of the environmental movement that I think came to realize, wisely, that starving local people don't make good environmentalists, so how do we diversify and broaden the strength of the local economy so that people can afford to care about the environment? That's a role that tourism can play.
Do you support Plum Creek's proposal for the area around Moosehead Lake?
I'm anxious to see the rework that they've promised of their original concept plan. Just like I think that we have to set a standard that others can follow in order to make people comfortable with what we're doing, I think that holds true for Plum Creek. So they have got to do an excellent job with the design and implementation of what they do. I think the most important thing to consider when looking at that proposal is that it is indeed a reflection of the changing tapestry of ownership and value that's being placed on our land. If the timber industry does grow weaker, what will the new economy for this area be? That's critically important to Plum Creek because on the one hand they have an opportunity with their development to be part of that new economy, but if the development is done wrong, they have the potential to take away from the tourist side of that new economy. I think they'll get it right.
One of the things that Plum Creek may highlight is the fact that the Katahdin region is the gateway to some of the most significant conservation that's taken place to date in the state of Maine. In this area there's already a tremendous amount of conservation in place on the ground that I think protects the values that some of the environmental groups are concerned with. But that's not generally the case around Moosehead. The area around Moosehead is under much greater pressure than we can ever be now because of conservation easements we have in place here.
What surprises have you found in northern Maine?
The people have a strong connection to the land here, and they're concerned about its future. I worry sometimes that people will say, "We'll take anything," regardless of its impact on other potential future opportunities that might come our way because we so desperately need jobs. But this is a community, like many communities in Maine, where even the people who tend to be antagonistic to you, if you're down on your luck, would do anything to help you. The support that we get from the people that do support us, juxtaposed against the abuse we get from some of those that don't, makes it worthwhile.
The one frustration I have with the area would be that there seems to be a component of the community that is more vulnerable to believing that everything is part of a conspiracy or that there's some grand scheme that is out there, instead of global economic forces. That's just borne of not having to look outside the area for anything for a hundred years, having everything taken care of by the economy of these mills.
Have you learned anything from Roxanne Quimby's experience in purchasing large tracts of land in the North Woods?
As much as I do believe that when you own a piece of land you have every right to do whatever you want with it, I think that talking with people and gathering local input seems to be the absolute best way to avoid running into a brick wall over something you're trying to achieve. I think it's easier to build consensus than it is to buy land and just say, "It's my way or the highway."
What do you think the North Woods will look like in twenty years?
I'm not sure I'm qualified to say what I think they will look like, but I hope that we have a diversified timber industry. That will only happen if there are major public policy changes in the state of Maine that affect the cost of doing business. I would hope that we're still cutting trees, we're doing it sustainably, and on this fringe of the forest — Greenville, Brownville, Milo, Guilford, Millinocket, Jackman, The Forks, on down to Rangeley — you're seeing much more value going into timber. Paper is the low end of the value-added spectrum in my mind, and paper-making may not be happening the way it's happening now. In addition, there will be a number of well-designed resorts, as well as a greater incidence of smaller niche properties — nice B-and-Bs, small inns — offering specialized programming that takes place on the edge of, or with forays into, this large multiuse forested mass.