INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — Tucked in the nation’s northeastern corner, the Passamaquoddy tribe’s ancestral land remains as it was centuries ago: rugged and teeming with natural beauty and wildlife. Snow-covered in winter, springtime warmth reveals a rolling landscape, lakes and ponds — and dozens of bubbling springs.
But there is an ugly reality inside this idyllic community. Joblessness is rampant, making it hard for residents to feed their families. The tribe also needs money to bolster public safety and other tribal services.
The leadership has been working on a bold plan to address these issues: Capitalize on the land’s pristine spring water by building a 123,000-square-foot bottling plant and selling the water to customers outside of the tribal land.
The tribe is working with an investor and hopes to complete a deal early next year. Planning has been underway for several years, and there appears to be broad support among the 1,300 tribal members in Indian Township.
“People are struggling, especially with the cold weather coming and the high cost of fuel. Some people are having a really hard time,” said Karen Sabattis, a mother of five and grandmother of nine who was laid off from a tribal plant that makes military clothing. “We need more economic development.”
The Creative Apparel plant where Sabattis and several hundred other tribal members once worked is idle, and there are few other employment options in the state’s poorest county. The latest figures from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs put unemployment on the reservation at 60 percent, causing an exodus of tribal members.
“If we had jobs that paid a livable wage, more of our people would come back,” said Chief Joseph Socobasin. “Some of them are my own family members who live off the reservation, and the only reason is that they can’t find work.”
The goal for the tribe is to create 70 good-paying industrial jobs at the plant and to bring in revenue to fund tribal schools, public safety, health care and an assisted living center at Indian Township, Socobasin said. Even more jobs would come from spinoff businesses such as a trucking company for hauling water, he said.
Tribal members have been careful not to move too fast; they want to minimize any damage to the land’s resources and maintain its natural beauty. The industrial plant would be tucked away, and trucks would use U.S. 1, which abuts the proposed plant site.
Bill Turner, a hydrologist, water source expert and tribal consultant, said rainwater and melting snow could provide more than 700 million gallons of water from multiple wells — without tapping the aquifer deep below the ground’s surface. And the remote location means the water source is unspoiled.
The plant initially would be set up to produce 20 million cases of water a year, though there’s enough water for more than 200 million cases, Turner said.
“Everything sounds positive,” Turner said from his office in New Mexico. “We should be able to inject a lot of cash into the economy and provide jobs for the Passamaquoddies.”
The tribe, which aims to own 61 percent of the company, intends to take advantage of new market tax credits for investors in rural areas and loan guarantee programs through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to help cover the $32 million cost of building the plant and the first 18 months of operation, officials said.
The Passamaquoddies have no plans to go head-to-head with Maine’s Poland Spring, the nation’s third-largest bottled water brand. The tribe would have its own label, Passamaquoddy Blue, but it sees bigger markets through sales of store-labeled water and sales to the U.S. government, said tribal consultant Mike Dugay.
Nationwide, bottled water sales have grown to $11.8 billion despite coming under attack from environmentalists who point out that delivery trucks pollute the air and plastic bottles clog up landfills.
Market indicators point to further growth in 2014 on top of a 6.7 percent gain of bottled water sales this past year, and the market has room for new entrants as soda sales give up ground and consumers seek healthier drink options, said Chris Hogan, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, Va.
While it all sounds good, there are some skeptical tribal members.
“It goes in one ear and out the other, because they’ve heard it all before,” said Trever Mitchell, a recent graduate of Washington County Community College in Calais.
But they want to believe.
While there are jobs elsewhere in Maine, Passamaquoddies like Mitchell, 27, would prefer to live and work on the reservation, where there’s a strong bond to the land.
“A lot of friends and relatives my age, they all feel the same way. They love the area. They love being around here. Our family is here. We all love the outdoors,” he said. “But there’s just absolutely nothing to do. There’s no jobs whatsoever. And that hurts a lot of people.”