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‘Brain Gain’ conference aims to examine ways to boost Valley population

FORT KENT, Maine — The St. John Valley must attract people from away to move here in order for the area to thrive, according to the Northern Maine Development Commission.

“As indicated in NMDC’s recent Next Generation Strategic Plan, population attraction is essential for economic growth of the region,” said Jon Gulliver, NMDC director of investor and community relations. “Fundamentally, the retention and attraction of people is the core factor for future viability of Aroostook and Washington counties. Extreme economic, community and personal pressures are now being felt as a smaller population is carrying the full cost of critical public services and workforce demand.”

To help come up with ways to attract and retain workers to the area, representatives of NMDC, the Town of Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, are hosting a conference in May — “Brain Gain: Fostering In-migration in the St. John Valley.”

The conference was initially spearheaded by former town councilor Joey Ouellette, according to Fort Kent Town Manager Suzie Paradis.

“He began communications with myself and NMDC in early January and we have held weekly discussions with several individuals planning the event,” Paradis said. “We will have a panel of individuals who have relocated to this area, each discussing their reasons for moving to the St. John Valley and how we can attract others to the area.”

Ouellette said that while he was a town councilor, “I realized the number one thing killing our town is outmigration. It is causing our taxes to go up, our schools and businesses to close, and causing us to lose services.

“I wanted to be able to find a way to give our community the tools necessary to reverse the trend,” he said. “With the help of NMDC and UMFK, we were able to find a (keynote) speaker from the University of Minnesota who has done research on communities just like ours who have been able to reverse their outmigration trend. My hope is, the community realizes the dire situation we are in and uses this conference as a tool to improve our local economy.”

The keynote speaker from Minnesota is Ben Winchester, a researcher who specializes in studying how to attract people to rural areas.

“Currently, he is documenting a rural “brain gain” — the trend of 30-49 year-olds moving to rural areas — to identify the social and economic opportunities of this migration. He is also analyzing rural community leadership, especially as it affects community-wide requirements to support the public sector to ‘keep the town running,’” according to the UMN website.

Winchester will be one of several speakers at the event, which will begin with a breakfast meal at UMFK.

The conference will also provide time for attendees to express their opinions as to how the St. John Valley can attract newcomers to the area.

“We at NMDC are hoping this conference can generate ideas which will translate to all northern Maine,” Gulliver said.

The Brain Gain conference is scheduled for 7:45 a.m. to noon on Wednesday, May 22, at the University of Maine at Fort Kent Nadeau Hall Teleconference Room. Any interested members of the public are welcome to attend. The cost is $25, which includes breakfast. To register, visit https://www.umfk.edu/conferences/brain-gain/

The registration deadline for the conference is Monday, May 13.
For more information, call Jon Gulliver at (207) 493-5851 or email at jgulliver@nmdc.org.

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