GOULDSBORO, Maine — Two firms are in serious discussions with Bumble Bee Foods about taking over the sardine cannery, either of which could employ between 110 and 130 people, according to officials.
Gov. John Baldacci, who was in the village of Prospect Harbor on Friday to talk to Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski and to town officials, said he hopes that either one of those two firms, which officials did not identify, can renovate the plant and have it operating by July 1. Bumble Bee, citing cuts in the total allowable catch for herring, has said it plans to shut the cannery down permanently on April 18.
“There’s more of a sense of optimism,” Baldacci said Friday.
On Feb. 23, a week after the cannery’s closure was announced, Baldacci met at the plant with cannery employees who vented frustration about the cannery’s announced closure.
A total of five firms have expressed interest in the cannery with two considered more likely candidates than the other three, according to officials, who would not identify any of the companies.
Because of a reduction in the annual federal catch limit for Atlantic herring — as sardines are known before they are canned — any new owner almost is certainly not going to maintain the plant as a sardine cannery, according to officials. The Prospect Harbor plant employs 128 people and is the last remaining sardine cannery in the U.S.
If acquired by a new owner, the plant is expected to be renovated primarily into a lobster processing facility that also can process other types of seafood, officials have indicated. Such versatility would make it easier for the new owners to keep the plant operating year-round, they have said.
Baldacci said Friday that the reason he hopes the plant can be renovated and started up by July is because lobster industry officials have told him that is when processing services are most needed. Maine’s lobster industry, which is estimated to have caught an all-time recorded high of 75.6 million pounds in 2009, lands most of its catch each year from midsummer through midfall.
“These companies are growing companies,” Baldacci said of the prospective buyers. “They need more space, more workers and more processing capacity.”
Lischewski said Friday outside the cannery’s main entrance that the company is working to find someone to take over the plant, either by buying it or leasing it from Bumble Bee. He said the chance that Bumble Bee would be a partner with a new operator is the least likely of those three options.
Lischewski said any decision about who might take over the cannery likely is to be made in the next few weeks. He said Bumble Bee is not focused on gaining a profit in selling the plant, in which $14 million has been invested over the past decade, and that it plans to be “very reasonable” in its terms for handing the plant over to a new operator. He said Bumble Bee wants to find someone who will employ a similar number of people and who will give first crack at those jobs to the existing employees.
“That right now is more important to us than trying to generate a high dollar value for the facility,” Lischewski said. “We’re trying to move quickly. The longer it drags out, the more difficult it becomes. The next couple of weeks are pretty critical.”
Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman was in Prospect Harbor on Friday with the governor and other state officials. She said her department has been in contact with more than 90 employees at the plant and has had officials at the plant two days each week to help provide skills and services assessments to interested employees.
Fortman said the state has waived the job search requirement for cannery employees who might want to collect unemployment after April 18, so they will have an easier time getting state assistance between the sardine operation’s closure and the startup of any new processor. She said her department would continue to offer job placement and skills training services to cannery employees until such services are no longer requested.
One cannery employee who did not want to give his name said outside the plant that he felt better about the plant’s future on Friday than he did three weeks ago. He said he is hopeful that a new operator can be found and is glad that the job search requirement for unemployment benefits has been waived.
“I thought it sounded good,” he said of the private briefings employees got from Baldacci and Lischewski. “I’m happier today than I was the other day.”
Other employees were a little more skeptical. Another man who did not want to give his name said that even if a new operator can be found, the commercial fishing industry continues to face a lot of environmental and economic challenges.
“All we want to do is work,” he said, gesturing to the cannery wall. “We were going to put ‘Wall Street’ up here and see if we could get a bailout.”
A third employee, Eric Deacon, 31, of Corea, said that whatever jobs are offered by a new plant operator likely won’t pay as well or have the same benefits as what cannery workers have been getting.
“I doubt we’re going to be making out as good as we are now,” Deacon said.