GOULDSBORO, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci heard firsthand Tuesday from local officials and employees concerned about the announced closure of the local Bumble Bee sardine cannery when he traveled to the village of Prospect Harbor to offer his support.
Baldacci met in private with cannery employees, some of whom made it clear they are unhappy with the pending closure of the cannery, which is expected to result in 128 people losing their jobs.
“They’re angry and they’re frustrated,” Baldacci said later when meeting separately with Gouldsboro officials and reporters at the town office down the road from the cannery.
“They will get the support that they need.”
Baldacci said his immediate focus, and that of other state and local officials, is to find another employer in the seafood processing industry that will keep the plant running with roughly the same number of employees.
He said that a few companies have indicated they are interested in possibly taking over the facility from Bumble Bee, though there could be some time gap between when Bumble Bee leaves and a new employer takes over.
“There are two or three [companies] interested in reviewing the opportunities here,” the governor said outside the plant’s front door after meeting with cannery officials. “There’s been very active interest in the fisheries sector. We’re trying to tee this up as much as possible so there’s a quick turnaround.”
Baldacci added he will “move heaven and Earth” to try and find another commercial use for the property and to smooth a possible transition between Bumble Bee and another year-round employer. Bumble Bee is willing to consider partnering with another processor that may take over the main operations of the plant, he said.
He said that in addition to acting as a broker, the state could designate the cannery as a Pine Tree Zone, which would allow a new owner to keep 80 percent of its employee tax withholding for 10 years.
Meanwhile, Baldacci said he wants workers to know what their options are for health care coverage and job retraining programs in the event they end up having to look for new jobs.
“We want to redevelop and transition [the plant] into another commercial entity,” he said. “It will not be a housing development site.”
Still, some employees took the opportunity Tuesday to vent their frustrations to the governor, according to Carroll Rolfe, a cutting room employee from the village of Corea who has worked at the plant for 27 years. Rolfe said the workers are unhappy that Bumble Bee Foods has decided to close the plant in mid-April, though the San Diego-based company had an agreement with the state to keep the plant operating through at least the end of the year.
“Some people are pissed off,” Rolfe said while climbing into his truck outside the plant Tuesday afternoon. “I think everybody is [upset].”
Bumble Bee has said that a new federal reduction in the annual catch quota for Atlantic herring — as sardines are known before they are canned — will limit the cannery’s production levels to the point that it is no longer profitable. Bumble Bee officials have indicated that because of the resulting reduced herring supply, they are seeking a waiver from the requirements of the company’s agreement with the state.
As for what leverage the state might have as a result of that agreement, which Bumble Bee inherited when it acquired the plant in 2004, Baldacci said he would have to look into it further. Bumble Bee predecessor Connors Bros. Ltd. of New Brunswick signed the agreement, a consent decree, a decade ago to settle an anti-trust case brought by the state when the Canadian firm acquired Stinson Seafood in 2001.
Elected officials from Gouldsboro and neighboring Winter Harbor said Tuesday they are trying to stay positive about the chances of the plant being repurposed by a new owner into a facility for processing multiple types of seafood.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Winter Harbor Selectman Diana Young.
Young, who has worked at the plant for 42 years, said the cannery’s financial impact on the two towns is significant. Cannery workers shop at local businesses and the plant’s payroll account is handled by a local bank branch, she said.
“The economic impact is 10 times what you’re looking at [in terms of direct employment],” Young said. “[Workers] don’t know what to do. It’s real emotional.”