Can Our Dying Mill Towns Save Themselves By Becoming Veteran Friendly?

     It is no secret that the demise of the paper and timber industries has devastated some communities in our state.  During a recent trip to one such town I was dumbfounded.  During a visit to that area during my high school years I remember bustling streets and thriving businesses.  I remember thinking that this particular town was somewhere I would like to live when I grew up.  That thought might have been inspired by what my teenage hormones perceived as an abundance of teenage girls.
     During my most recent visit there seemed to be an abundance of buildings and a complete shortage of people.  I am no longer a young man, yet I was one of the youngest people in town that day.  Empty storefronts lined the main street.  It is quite likely the final successful business there sold nothing but “Closed” and “For Sale” signs.
     It was sad.
     Sadder still were the empty houses in the residential areas, which foretell further hardship and heartbreak.  The lack of children playing outdoors or their tax-paying parents doing yard work is a bad omen.  A once thriving community that I wanted to become a part of is afflicted with a terminal illness in search of a cure.
     Debates rage about what industry can save such economically depressed areas, which focuses on the theory that workers will follow the work.  I’m sure that is true, but I’m more interested in the soul of these great communities.  Can an aging and declining population hold the line until an employer can be found to entice a younger generation to return?
     While weighing this on the drive home I began to wonder if Veterans might have the answer.  Right now these hurting towns are auctioning off tax delinquent properties for a pittance.  In some instances the homes are purchased by developers who turn them into low-income housing or drug treatment facilities.  Neither bodes well for the long-term future of these communities.
     But what if these same communities offered up those tax-delinquent properties at little or no cost to Veterans and their families?  If structured correctly, such a program might lower the median age, provide a stable tax base, and provide customers for small businesses.
     In my mind, such a program would need to have five qualifying prerequisites:
1. Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are no better than their predecessors.  But they are younger, which is what the town needs.  In addition, targeting that group of Veterans not only portrays the town’s image of being appreciative of service, but creates an instant bond among the new residents.  A group of people with such shared experiences will quickly form into a community.
2. Honorable Discharge: While I have issues with the validity of some “bad paper discharges,” due to the necessity of building solid communities these towns cannot take risks.  An Honorable Discharge is a reliable indicator that a Veteran has a good moral character.
3. Income: In order to be considered, a Veteran must demonstrate sufficient income to repair and refurbish the home and pay the associated property taxes.  I am not proposing this as a solution to assist homeless Veterans.  The goal is to stabilize the community, which takes money.  Veterans often have a small income from retirement or a disability pension which could be sufficient to live on if they did not have significant  housing expenses.
4. Residency: Any interested Veteran must agree to make the house they receive their primary residence.  If the town is willing to invest in the Veteran, then the Veteran should be likewise vested in the town vice renting the house to an unvested third party.
5. Commitment: Veterans must agree to stay for at least a period of five years or return the property to the town.  There are no quick fixes and the Veteran must be committed for the long haul.
     Critics will claim that this is just another “welfare for Veterans” program, a term I have heard from a segment of government bureaucrats lately.  To the contrary, this concept capitalizes on the strengths that Veterans have to offer and asks them to continue to serve in a different capacity by transitioning into pillars of these communities.  The investment from the struggling towns would be minimal and the benefits tangible.
     If someone smarter than I can morph this idea into an actionable plan I will gladly surrender any credit.  I would just like to see these towns thrive once again thanks to what a Veteran community has to offer.
Clifford M. Gray

About Clifford M. Gray

I grew up in Enfield and moved to the Bangor area in junior high. I enlisted in the US Air Force Immediately after graduating from Hampden Academy. During my 20-year career I served in intelligence, command & control, and the Air Force's history and museum program. Following my retirement I completed my undergraduate at California State University, Chico, with a BA in History and Social Science. I returned to Maine last year to attend graduate school. I currently work as a veteran advocate in the area of peer support.