Communities of all sizes across the Northern Forest are reinventing themselves and their local economies by working with their existing cultural and natural assets. Municipal, nonprofit and business leaders with bold imaginations and unshakable optimism – despite worrisome demographic trends and social problems – are collaborating across sectors to think past old economic models and find new paths to prosperity.
Four years ago, with support from a range of sources including the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, a group of dedicated visionaries in Coaticook, Quebec imagined a new evening attraction at a beautiful local park. They hoped that it would offer visitors a reason to stay overnight and spend more dollars in local businesses. Last year, Foresta Lumina, a mystical sound and light show that winds along a 1.5 mile trail in Parc De La Gorge, drew 156,000 visitors. The influx has more than quadrupled tourism spending in the community. Local leaders have adjusted the project’s design to ensure that visitors explore the city’s downtown during their stay and new businesses are beginning to open to serve the visitors. Last year, the Themed Entertainment Association (THEA) celebrated Foresta Lumina with an “Outstanding Achievement” award. THEA awards are typically given to vastly larger organizations like Disney and Universal Studios.
A few years ago, my family traveled to Coaticook, excited to see Foresta Lumina. I dusted off my high school French for an unnecessary (but pleasurable) attempt to order dinner at a local restaurant (unnecessary because the staff spoke English – so, despite my rusty French, we all enjoyed a tasty meal). As dusk settled in, we joined the throngs of enthusiastic visitors waiting to be admitted into the park. The woods shimmered with otherworldly lights and sounds. We walked across the longest suspension bridge in North America (which spans the gorge) and got goosebumps going through the eerily lit, foggy threshold at the end – not for the faint of heart! My boys, six and nine at the time, my husband and I were utterly transported. If you haven’t traveled yet to Coaticook to take in this extraordinary spectacle, you should. (Foresta Lumina is open this year until October 8th, and it is highly recommended to purchase tickets in advance).
Although Foresta Lumina has not yet solved larger challenges in Coaticook, including youth out-migration, it seems to have generated a widespread belief in the potential for continued economic growth in the region. I marvel at efforts like this being undertaken across the region while continuing to grapple with basic questions. How will leaders involved in these initiatives capitalize on their achievements and catalyze sustained, diverse economic development? Will leaders of these successful projects across the Northern Forest embolden others to take risks and start their own new ventures? Can these local projects help us collectively to believe in the promise of our region, draw new folks here to live, work and play, and give more young people enough confidence to choose to spend their adult lives here?
I believe they can and look forward to seeing these local efforts, modest as some of them may be now, mature and proliferate.
(For more on Foresta Lumina, read Chris Jensen’s excellent article in InDepth NH).