FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — "If I had a magic bullet [to cure economic problems], I'd load my revolver with six of them and boom, boom, boom!"
That's how much Tim Goff wants to pump new economic life into Fort Fairfield.
Goff is a native of the town, who left a TV news career 2½ years ago to move home and become Fort Fairfield's economic development director and head of the local chamber of commerce.
In those roles, he's become closely involved with multiple groups trying to create ways to keep more of Aroostook County's young people living and working there, and to persuade those who have moved away to come home.
It's a serious need. Like all of rural Maine, Aroostook has seen its population decline and grow older. The County has lost more than 28,000 residents since 1980. The closing of Loring Air Force base in the early 1990s took a lot of them. But others have moved away or passed away, with fewer young County residents to take their places.
"We have half the young people we used to have, even when I was in school," said Kristin Wells of Aroostook Aspirations, who grew up and graduated from high school in Houlton about 20 years ago. "The high school graduation numbers are half what they were."
Wells moved away but returned to Aroostook five years ago to raise her own family. She, like Goff, is now helping to lead the groups working to convince young people there is a good future in Aroostook County. One of their prime tools is an online effort called Opportunities Aroostook, which lists job openings, internships and other chances for people to find employment.
Bob Dorsey, director of the Aroostook partnership, which sponsors the Opportunities site, said there are jobs in the County and that businesses often have a hard time recruiting people with the needed skills. He said they all fight the perception there are not good jobs available.
"Our forest products industry is doing well," Dorsey said. "Manufacturing is doing well. We have niche industries and need to promote that."
Dorsey and others said the County also needs to work harder to lure people to move back and take some of those jobs. Dorsey, Goff and Wells have all gone away and returned home.
"So if we can reach out to those folks – the former residents, make that awareness known – hopefully, it will do a better job of recruiting a future workforce," Dorsey said.
But those messages may not be reaching Aroostook's young people. During an interview with four seniors at Fort Fairfield Middle and High School, all mentioned the challenge of keeping and attracting young people to live and work in the areas.
"There's really no job opportunities up here," one said.
Most of the others agreed.
Goff said local leaders need to do a better job of spreading the word that Maine's largest county does have jobs and opportunity.