Can "life-style" revitalize a rural county? Outdoor enthusiasts in Northern Maine are skiing a path of experimentation in community development.
You can tell how rural it is, since they call it “The County”: that’s Aroostook, the largest county east of the Mississippi, jutting up as the top hat of Maine.
This week, The County is hosting the World Cup in biathlon: combining cross-country skiing and riflery. Jay Field reports for NPR that the international event is expected to draw 35,000 spectators to northern Maine to watch the competitions in Presque Isle and Fort Kent.
Aroostook County has been potato-farming country. French and then Swedish immigrants settled here along the Canadian border. “The roads they built became impassable in winter in a region that averages 115 inches of snow,” writes David Sharp for AP. “So the Swedes skied for transportation, for hunting, and for fun, just like they did back home.”
Sharp reports that snowmobiling had displaced skiing locally by the mid-1970s, but cross-country has come back strong. Andy Shepherd, a former L.L. Bean strategist, and others created the Maine Winter Sports Center in 1999, “to develop a new economic model for Northern Maine.”
With funding from the Libra Foundation, they set out to create “a model for the sustainability of rural communities through a skiing lifestyle.”
Landing the World Cup Biathlon competition is one measure of their success, but a more enduring one seems to be taking shape among The County’s youth.
Local schools now have ski programs; New Sweden Consolidated School provides free skis for all students grades 3-6 to use during PE and offers seasonal rentals to all students for $55 (scholarships available). Caribou High School now has its own cross-country trails.
Laurie Spooner, New Sweden’s principal, said she can’t quantify the effects of the winter sports program, but there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest it benefits students and teachers too. “We don’t have as many disciplinary issues on the days the kids ski.”
Nationally, “life-style” economies seem to be the trails of the future. Many of them are city-centric. Meanwhile, the older agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing economies that once sustained rural places are dwindling; those that endure require fewer workers. Aroostook’s endeavor – focusing on a winter sport with health benefits and tourist potential, as well as ties to local history and culture – is a visionary idea.