OLD TOWN, Maine — With its watercraft division now fully consolidated in Old Town, Wisconsin-based Johnson Outdoors on Tuesday held a celebration that drew state and city officials, corporate executives and invited rank-and-file employees of the Old Town Canoe manufacturing plant.
A facsimile of Old Town Canoe’s familiar and historic downtown factory building welcomed about 150 visitors to the modern Johnson Outdoors facility on Gilman Falls Avenue.
“As much as my father loved that old factory … he would agree that the future of Old Town Canoe is right here in this building,” said Johnson Outdoors Chairwoman and CEO Helen Johnson-Leopold, whose father, Sam Johnson, purchased Old Town Canoe from former owner Dean Gray in 1974 for $1 million.
Earlier this year, Johnson Outdoors announced it would close its manufacturing facility in Ferndale, Wash., and consolidate its plastic boat manufacturing in Old Town. In addition to Old Town Canoe brand canoes and kayaks, Johnson Outdoors manufactures the Necky and Ocean Kayak brands.
Speaking at Tuesday’s event, Gov. John Baldacci said the company’s decision to consolidate watercraft in Old Town was the result of many hours of planning and negotiation.
“With the world economy so competitive, we have to be firing on all cylinders to compete,” he said. A combination of public and private grants, tax breaks and other business incentives not only helped to keep the company in Old Town, he said, but also prompted it to invest in new facilities and equipment and expand its operations.
Baldacci declared Tuesday “Old Town Canoe Day” in Maine.
The consolidation and expansion promise to bring about 48 new full-time jobs to Old Town. Tim Magoon, director of operations at Old Town Canoe, said that about 20 of the new positions have been filled. The company will hire additional workers as the production process gets fully up to speed, he said. About 200 workers are employed at the Old Town facility.
On display at the event was a new gas-fired “oven” — a massive box in which aluminum boat molds filled with plastic powder are rotated evenly to create the sleek hulls of molded canoes or kayaks. The oven cost about $400,000 — half of which was provided in the form of a development grant from the city of Old Town, according to City Manager Peggy Daigle.
The facility, which produces up to 200,000 boats each year, will have a total of eight ovens, most of which have been relocated from the historic Old Town Canoe factory and the Ferndale plant.
The city also lent the company more than $694,000 to help offset the cost of the consolidation, Daigle said, including moving manufacturing equipment from Washington to Maine. The money was taken from revenues paid to the city by the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill and earmarked for economic development, she said.
At the time her father first visited the plant, Johnson-Leopold said, Old Town Canoe already was experimenting with making molded plastic canoes — an innovation that has become the backbone of the personal paddleboat industry.
“Old Town, Maine, is where the plastic boat industry was born,” she said.
As for Old Town Canoe’s trademark wood-and-canvas models, Kelly Grindle, vice president for marine electronics and watercraft at Johnson Outdoors, said the much-loved traditional canoes will continue to be made and restored.
“We will do new production as well as service work,” he said. “There are a lot of Old Town Canoes out there, and they last forever. It is a part of our heritage. It will never go away.”
The company has contracted with Island Falls Canoe, owned by Jerry Stelmok of Atkinson, to build and maintain its line of wooden canoes.
Daigle said the fate of the rambling downtown structure where Old Town Canoe has had its headquarters since the turn of the last century remains uncertain. The state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are evaluating the site for possible industrial contamination, she said, although there is no indication of any serious problem.
The city will hold community meetings to explore possible uses for the site.