BREWER, Maine — Ghosts of the abandoned Eastern Fine Paper Co. mill whispered to Peter Vigue that there was a history of success in Brewer.
Vigue was on a mission in early 2007 to find a waterfront location in Maine for a manufacturing facility for Cianbro Corp., and had stopped in Brewer during a three-day excursion along the state’s lengthy coastline.
He liked what he saw and convinced the board of directors of the Pittsfield-based construction company to invest millions of dollars in a facility to build modules for oil refineries. On Thursday the first of a dozen shipments left the city for their new home in Texas.
Hundreds of onlookers lined the riverbanks to watch as the massive barge, loaded with the enormous steel modules that look like huge Tinkertoy assemblies, made its way down the Penobscot River.
It was a stark contrast to two years ago when Vigue first visited the South Brewer site.
The 41-acre former mill was snow-covered and gated off. Vigue said he parked and walked around the massive brick buildings, which for nearly a century produced paper. Eventually, he made his way inside.
“You could see what happened in the past,” he said on Thursday, recalling his first visit to the site. “Also obvious was that it wasn’t going to return.”
Vigue, who is chairman of the board of directors, president and chief executive officer for Cianbro, spent an hour and a half inside the brick edifice that had employed up to 700 locals at the high point in its century-long history on the banks of the Penobscot River.
He walked past calendars that were opened to January 2004, the month the mill’s doors closed for the final time, laying off the remaining 240 papermakers.
While walking through the empty buildings, which had been stripped and vandalized, Vigue saw past the devastation and heartache and knew that, with effort, life could return.
Later he met with City Manager Steve Bost and the city’s economic development team of D’arcy Main-Boyington and Tanya Pereria, which he has since nicknamed “the dynamic duo.”
At that point the city had an agreement with a developer to create a multiuse facility that included condominiums and shopping, but the project was in the very early stages of development.
“The next day, I … got a call from Steve,” Vigue recalled.
When Vigue said “500 jobs” it caught the attention of city leaders who quickly decided to change directions, Bost said last week.
A few months later, the city announced that Cianbro was going to change the shuttered paper mill into a module-making plant, and would name it the Eastern Manufacturing Facility to honor its former tenant.
Vigue and his 15-member team spent months on the Gulf Coast during 2006 discussing a refinery expansion for Motiva Enterprises’ Port Arthur, Texas, facility, which makes Shell Oil products.
Cianbro was “months behind” the other 50 or so possible applicants and fought an uphill battle over perceptions that Maine was too cold, that it was too far away and that, possibly, black bears would eat workers, Vigue said.
Because of the fast-approaching time frame for the refinery expansion to begin, and the lack of a viable site ready to go, Cianbro made a calculated move and began developing the Brewer site.
“My instincts were that we were going to get this,” Vigue said of the contract with Motiva for 53 refinery modules. “We announced it [the redevelopment of the mill] in May and we never had a contract until October.
“We had to get all the permitting and get started,” on cleaning up the hazardous industrial waste left behind by a century of papermaking, razing buildings and digging into the Penobscot River for a deep-water bulkhead. “We never would have been able to get going” on time without taking the leap of faith, Vigue said.
The first time he presented the project to the Cianbro board of directors, Vigue loaded them into a van in Pittsfield and took them to Brewer.
“We drive through the gate and — silence,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. They said, ‘Have you really evaluated this facility? It has to be heavily contaminated.’”
Vigue wanted to lead the board through the 340,000-square-foot building, which was actually a collection of structures added onto and connected over the decades. The board of directors, however, decided to stay inside the van.
“We drove around the grounds a few times,” Vigue said.
The board eventually was convinced to invest millions in changing the old paper mill into a module manufacturing plant, he said, not divulging the exact cost.
Access to the river was the key to the undertaking, he said. The massive refinery modules can be up to five stories tall and weigh up to 1,200 tons, so the only way to transport them is by water.
Thursday’s shipment held four modules, but two were so big they were separated into two pieces. Three of the modules were 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 40 feet tall and weigh 650 tons.
“We took a slight risk” by investing in Brewer, Vigue said, adding, “No risk, no reward.”
Changing the abandoned Brewer mill into a modern module manufacturing facility took Cianbro 10 months, and was possible with the help of the city, state and federal government.
“It was a concerted effort from the beginning,” Main-Boyington said on Thursday.
The city created South Brewer Redevelopment LLC when the mill closed to assume the responsibility of owning and redeveloping the site, and shelter the city from liability.
“The South Brewer site’s contamination was by far the biggest obstacle we faced,” said Main-Boyington.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency spent between $1.5 million and $2 million to clean up and heat the mill after it closed, which prevented chemical-filled pipes from bursting during the spring of 2004.
Since the mill’s closing, the city acquired $3.55 million in federal funds for improvement to the entrance and to add a marina, and another $1.35 million in brownfield cleanup and research funds from the EPA to clean it. Two state grants — $15,000 for planning and $400,000 for cleanup and demolition — also were issued.
Key in making the project more attractive to Cianbro was a $550,000 brownfield low-interest loan awarded through the city, Main-Boyington said.
Brownfield sites are abandoned, idled or underused industrial or commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by environmental contamination.
U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud also were instrumental in the site’s redevelopment, Main-Boyington said.
“All three worked together in a very cooperative way,” she said. “They brought a lot of funding to the project. They helped us every step of the way and really did a phenomenal job.”
After Cianbro took over the site in May 2007, work crews demolished most of the large brick buildings, leaving a loading dock on the south side and the historic administration building and created a large, flat construction area with crushed rock, where modules could be built.
By April 2008 hundreds of employees were trained and hired and began making the refinery modules — heavy-duty industrial steel frames filled with pipes, pumps and electronics.
Brewer’s facility is one of four that are making modules for the refinery expansion. The refinery will double its output when finished in 2010 or 2011. The other module manufacturing facilities are in Corpus Christi, Texas, Charleston, N.C., and Tampico, Mexico.
“Brewer’s modules are the first to be shipped,” Vigue said on Wednesday during a send-off ceremony for the first load of modules to leave for the 2,300-mile trip to Texas.
As the Columbia Boston, a 94-by-354-foot black barge loaded with Cianbro modules, departed Thursday morning, workers at the Eastern Manufacturing Facility could be heard saying “that’s cool” and “it’s awesome.”
Some immediately pulled out cameras to take photos of the massive barge being guided by tugboats down the Penobscot River and others took out their cell phones and began making calls.
“Hey, I thought I’d let you know the barge just took off,” one man standing near the bulkhead said.
Vigue simply said, “what a sight.”
Vigue, a 1969 Maine Maritime Academy graduate, rode aboard the Friendship, an MMA research vessel, which escorted the massive barge down the mostly unused transportation corridor.
The barge was pulled by a 120-foot tugboat and guided by a smaller tugboat. The Coast Guard led the way to ensure the river’s ice was cleared. A smaller boat from Hamlin’s Marina followed, along with another MMA vessel filled with local dignitaries.
As the parade of vessels traveled south, residents along both sides of the waterway could be seen watching, waving and taking photos. Cars parked along roads with views of the river and people congregated at several locations including the riverfronts in Winterport and Bucksport.
“It’s overwhelming,” Joe Cote, the facility’s general manager, said. “I am so proud of what our company has done. I’m absolutely thrilled. All of our team members are.”
The barge carried the first of 12 or 13 shipments that will be made to Texas over the next 14 months. The vessel made its way to Searsport on Thursday where “everything will be double-checked” and it will head out midday today, Cote said. All of the work to get to this point was hard, but the payoff is well worth it, he said, saying locals are “starving for something positive.”
“It’s a historic event,” Cote said. “There is no question about that.”
As the Friendship cruised down the river, Vigue waved and saluted onlookers, and when the loaded barge went under the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, which also was constructed by Cianbro, he and Cote signaled the barge operator to sound off the vessel’s horn.
“I wish all the crewmembers could be on this boat” to see this, Vigue said.