Cultural Byway a journey, a celebration
ST. JOHN VALLEY– As part of a region-wide effort that is bringing together many existing local initiatives, St. John Valley Cultural Byway project pioneers met Thursday at the Lakeview Restaurant in St. Agatha with approximately 40 members of the community and local stakeholders, said Sheila Jans, one of two experienced consultants working with the Northern Maine Development Commission and local communities to help create a corridor maintenance and partnership plan for the project.
Maine Department of Transportation Scenic Byways Coordinator Fred Michaud explained that there are 14 existing byways in the state of Maine, including the St. John Cultural Byway. In order to achieve “byway” designation, he said any region must have “strong characteristics in the following areas: scenic, historical, cultural, natural, recreational, and/or archeological.”
NMDC Project Director for Regional Planning Brian Longstaff said Thursday’s meeting was specifically intended to help project leaders “get from the residents of the community what is important to them in those categories.” NMDC’s role is also to help communities figure out how to acquire and maintain the money and volunteers needed to create the corridor maintenance and partnership plan in time for the 2014 World Acadian Congress and to continue maintaining it after the WAC is long over, said Longstaff.
“It’s ground-up. It’s from the communities to us,” he said. “We help to assemble that.”
Michaud’s vision is for recognition of the St. John Valley Cultural Byway as a national byway. He sees the St. John Valley as standing head and shoulders above other areas in the state, and potentially in the U.S., in terms of the uniqueness and significance of what he calls the area’s “story.”
The history of the Acadians in the St. John Valley, Michaud said, stands out because it is not just a story of cultural migration, but also a story of forced migration, the result of the interaction of “the power and politics of two nations.” The Acadian culture is the key to national acceptance as a Scenic Byway, he said.
Longstaff agreed, and said, “Up in this part of the world, it’s really the culture and the history that is the story.”
Although people will be able to trace the byway along a stretch of road from Allagash to Hamlin, because the story will define the corridor, the St. John Valley Cultural Byway will include assets, communities, and scenic and natural areas that don’t necessarily directly connect to one continuous length of pavement, said Longstaff. The project name refers as much to the region as it does to an actual route.
“We will try to create a more meaningful experience for the traveling public,” said Longstaff. “We want to give them as rich an experience as we can when they get here.”
“This is as much about tourism as the scenic aspect,” Michaud explained, and added, “This market goes as far south as Pennsylvania and New Jersey and people who have an interest in such things.”
He said, “The rural areas of the state are really hurting. This is an attempt to make [the St. John Valley Cultural Byway] an economic driver within the region.”
Longstaff said there are a number of other area resources the St. John Valley Byway Committee will also consider for spotlighting, including all the outdoor recreation possibilities.
“We want to tell that story as well,” he said.
However, the byway must first receive state designation before it can receive national designation. The project is currently developing a structure to help empower local organizations for the next steps.
Because so many local initiatives already exist which have provided background research and analysis for the project, the federal government has awarded the fledgling initiative $105,000 for interpretive signage in the region. The signage will tell the story that will define the St. John Valley Cultural Byway on granite posts with light-resistant panels that are good for 15 years, said Michaud.
He said receipt of the federal funding before receiving the national designation is unusual, and speaks to the level of work that has already been done on this project.
Longstaff said NMDC and other project leaders have identified about 35 to 40 sites for the signs. The Byway Committee will choose about 30 sites from among those, and will begin that process fairly soon.
Anyone interested in more information about America’s byways can visit byways.org.