Roads More traveled
Creating scenic byways partnerships to foster economic development
By Kathryn Buxton
In September, about 40 people including state legislators, tourism officials and local business owners boarded a bus and drove the 90-mile length of the Grindstone Scenic Byway from Matagamon at the northern end of Baxter State Park to Togue Pond at the south end. There were almost a dozen stops along the route, where participants learned about local history, culture and art. The bus tour was a milestone event in the effort to coalesce local support for the byway. It was the first time many of the people who have lived and worked within the byway corridor really saw the scenic route in its entirety – as well as the route’s broader possibilities as a tourism destination.
“By the end of the day, we hoped that everyone on the bus had the complete story of the byway from those who know it best,” said Fred Michaud. “It was a great exercise in public involvement.”
For the Katahdin region, that has long built its identity around papermaking and is now struggling to find new ways to bring jobs and economic stability to the area after the decline of the mills, the bus tour was a light bulb moment for many. It showed how a byway could be a uniting force.
Marsha Donahue, who hosted a bus stop tour at the North Light Gallery in Millinocket, said that the tour was an extraordinary opportunity for people to glimpse the power the byway has to help the region re-imagine its future.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get everyone on the same page,” said Donahue, pointing out there is a constant push and pull between the region’s more traditional economic activities such as papermaking, snowmobiling and ATVs and newer businesses like her art gallery.
“I was very excited to have people in the gallery who had never been here before and to show how we fit into the history of the region,” said Donahue. She said that making those connections and finding commonalities will be key as the region works to find a new “economic diversity.”
Carolann Ouellette, who heads Maine’s Office of Tourism, agrees that byways can be a powerful promotional tool.
“The byways designation provides all kinds of marketing opportunities,” said Ouellette. She cited a movement to market travel itineraries, so tourists have more reasons to visit a region.
“It allows local businesses to work together to build a great package and develop an attractive itinerary that showcases the scenic and cultural spots that make a byway,” said Ouellette.
By any description, Maine’s Scenic Byways program is something of an oddity. It is a collection of highways leading through some of the most beautiful and culturally significant places in Maine. The program is about building local grassroots efforts, and it is funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Maine’s program is seen by many within the state as a way to boost tourism and economic development in some of the state’s farthest flung rural areas. By others, it’s viewed as a way to preserve special places for their cultural, natural or scenic heritage. Individually, byway groups are a loosely organized network of local residents who take on the task of surveying, cataloguing and promoting local assets along their route.
Most of all, in the scope of programs managed by MaineDOT, it is a small program with very big dreams. The enthusiasm that byways engender among local residents is one of the program’s biggest selling points, and it will be one of the most critical elements in the byways’ ability to thrive in the years to come.
“Byways are, for the most part, grassroots organizations. They’re locally driven, and that is a big part of their beauty,” said MaineDOT Policy Development Specialist Fred Michaud who oversees the state’s four national and 10 state scenic byways. That means that advocates from the communities within the byway corridor essentially call the shots: from classifying the intrinsic values that earn a highway corridor its scenic designation to developing the byway corridor plan.
Getting everyone on the bus, so to speak, and helping different interests within the byways corridor find common ground and common purpose is essential for a byway project to succeed.
“There does need to be a high level of buy-in from local businesses and residents,” said Bruce Hazard of Placeworks Consulting. Hazard has been working with byway organizations in Maine for more than a decade, and he has seen the program grow and change as the concept of byways has come of age. If anything, he said, the program has gotten better. When Hazard first began working with byways organizations in Maine, there was a lot of focus on creating a corridor management plan. These days, there is an effort to build organizational capacity within the corridor communities, so the corridor plans are more sustainable.
“There’s a lot of hurry up and wait with a byway and that can be tough on an organization. You build up enthusiasm, and then you have to wait a year or two for the funding,” said Hazard. Those long lag times waiting for funding can have a tendency to rob momentum and enthusiasm from the effort, he said. As Hazard has learned, byways need large groups with varied but related interests that are ready to go the distance if they are to be successful.
Nowadays, said Michaud, the focus is on supporting the creation of sustainable grassroots organizations that have long-term goals for their regions. For the Grindstone Scenic Byway, that means forging alliances with a broad range of stakeholders, including large landowners, government agencies, local chambers of commerce and merchant and tourism groups. Even within these groups, there can be divergent interests and goals. Finding a way to establish common ground and keep byway efforts moving toward common goals can be challenging, said Michaud.
It is the emerging wisdom among byways professionals nationwide that the ability to develop compatible strategies for fiscal and organizational sustainability will be critical for byways to successfully reach their potential, said Michaud.
He cited efforts behind the Ohio & Erie Canal Way in Ohio, the Mohawk Towpath Byway in New York and Cascades Lakes Scenic Byway in Oregon as the model for this new concept of what he calls “the corridor management partnerships.”
To help build sustainable byway organizations with stronger roots, MaineDOT is looking at employing not only new organizational techniques, but also new technology and taking advantage of new, social media networks.
Michaud this fall attended “Marketing Boot Camp for Byways,” a program at the America’s Byways Resource Center in Duluth, Minnesota, and funded by the FWHA. There, Michaud and other byway coordinators learned ways for byways groups to become more efficient at reaching tourism markets outside of their home states.
Michaud said that in many ways, Maine’s byways are well-kept secrets.
“We put the signs up and we built amenties to benefit the traveler, but there’s a lot more we can do to make these more beneficial economic development programs,” said Michaud. In Maine, some byways have been more proactive than others. He noted that some of the most innovative promotional efforts are coming from recently designated routes, and from those off the beaten path, perhaps because there is more at stake for the byway partners. He cited the well-coordinated efforts to promote attractions along the Schoodic National Scenic Byway led by Jim Fisher at the Hancock County Planning Commission including efforts to tap into social media networks, and use videos, podcasts, QR codes and social media forums such as Facebook to engage visitors and corridor partners. A big attraction of new media for byway groups is that it is low cost and has the potential to reach a new, younger traveling audience from more distant places.
“All of this new media is great. It’s almost free – all it takes is time and a little gray matter,” said Fisher.
Still, Michaud believes more can be done to assist and empower corridor partners. He talked of forming an association that could market all of Maine’s byways collectively, so byways can pool their financial and professional resources. He also talked about investments MaineDOT may be able to make that will help facilitate the formation of local and statewide grassroots efforts, using up-to-date technologies such as remote meeting software like Adobe Connect.
“A lot of times, it’s hard getting people together when a byway is 80 or 90 miles long. It’s difficult to meet regularly, and it can be expensive,” said Michaud. “We want to look at how we can initiate meetings with webcams and interactive conferencing to increase the frequency of people getting together and sharing ideas.”
Michaud and Hazard both said there is a role byway organizations can play in the decisions prioritizing road maintenance funding, as state funding for highways grows tighter. Much like a metropolitan planning organization, communities within the corridor could present their priorities for road maintenance to MaineDOT to help steer funding to the byways for necessary repairs.
Hazard of Placeworks Consulting noted the correlation between the quality of a byway road surface and traveler experience. “There are basic expectations of a byway that the road surface is in good shape,” said Hazard. “That doesn’t mean that visitor satisfaction goes sky high if the road is good, but if a road is in bad shape, you can lose a lot of points.”
And of course, byways will need to have strong strategic visions to continue to attract federal dollars for signature projects like the $3 million reconstruction of the Height of Land scenic overlook completed earlier this year. Well-considered, well-placed investments such as good turnout infrastructure or visitor kiosks can be a cost-effective way to enhance the visitor experience.
For the Grindstone Byway and the communities along its route, the effort to define the region’s value as a tourism destination, to create tourist itineraries, to refine marketing messages and to identify the most effective marketing channels comes at a very good time, according to local gallery owner Donahue. She said efforts to market the byway will dovetail nicely with work Millinocket and other communities in the region are doing to redefine the area as a “world class” recreational and cultural destination.
“The signs are up, and now we need to map it, maybe do some videos and start working on national promotion,” said Donahue. “This is happening at the right time.”