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Tribe hopes to build bottled water plant in Maine to alleviate joblessness

This Oct. 1, 2013 photo shows Tomah Stream in Indian Township, Maine. The Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe plans to tap into pristine waters of the nearby Tomah aquifer with hopes of building a bottled water plant. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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By The Associated Press
Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

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 needs more money to bolster public safety and other tribal services.

The leadership has been working on a bold plan to address these issues: Capitalize on 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 under way 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's laid off from a tribal plant that makes military clothing.

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 an astonishing 60 percent, causing an exodus of tribal members.

The tribal leadership believes the bottling plant could provide for the community.

“If we had jobs that paid a livable wage, more of our people would come back,” Chief Joseph Socobasin said. “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 establish 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. 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 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.

“It's not just about this,” said tribal member Wes Nicholas, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “It's about creating a future for our people. That's our main goal.”

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