GOULDSBORO, Maine — More than three months after the last remaining sardine cannery closed forever, a new owner who plans to process lobster at the facility has been found.
Live Lobster Co. of Chelsea, Mass., has agreed to buy the former sardine plant, officials announced Wednesday.
In a press release, San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods announced it expects to transfer ownership of the plant to the Massachusetts lobster distributor within the next 70 days. The waterfront plant is expected to employ 40 people within the first year and to begin full processing operations in 2011, according to Bumble Bee. By 2012, the plant is projected to employ as many as 120 people, the release said.
The plant processed herring into sardines for more than 100 years and, by the time is was shut down in mid-April, was the last remaining sardine cannery in the United States. The cannery employed 128 people when it ceased operations.
Bumble Bee, which inherited the Stinson plant when it merged with Connors Bros. of New Brunswick in 2004, cited reductions in the federal catch limit on herring when it announced this past February that it was closing the facility.
In the Bumble Bee release, Gov. John Baldacci said the plant’s sale means much-needed jobs will be restored to the Schoodic Peninsula.
“After lengthy discussions with Bumble Bee and with Live Lobster, we believe the new ownership has a good business plan that will lead to the immediate creation of jobs and the long-term expansion of that work force over time,” Baldacci said in the statement. “Live Lobster has assured me that the company is committed to Maine, to Prospect Harbor and to building a state-of-the-art seafood processing facility.”
The plant is located in the village of Prospect Harbor, which is part of the town of Gouldsboro. Gouldsboro First Selectman Dana Rice said Wednesday that he is glad to hear the plant has a new owner, and that the town will do what it can to help make the new enterprise succeed.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Rice said. “The town of Gouldsboro will do whatever it can to help create jobs in the area.”
Attempts Wednesday to contact Live Lobster Co. President Antonio Bussone were unsuccessful. A man who answered the phone late Wednesday afternoon at the company’s Chelsea offices said Bussone was gone for the day and would not be back in the office until Thursday morning.
In the release, Bussone said the company is happy to have the support of Baldacci and the local community in acquiring and operating the plant.
“[Live Lobster] looks forward to growing its lobster supply, sales, and distribution business and is optimistic that it will be able to fully utilize the processing facility to its maximum capabilities in the near future,” Bussone indicated in the Bumble Bee release.
Rice, a lobster dealer who has extensive experience in Maine’s fishing industry, said he believes Live Lobster Co. has a buying station in Sunshine in Deer Isle and has some buying boats that operate out of Rockland and Spruce Head. He said that, given the time of year, he doesn’t think it is likely that any lobster will be processed in Prospect Harbor this year. The vast majority of sardine processing equipment has been removed from the plant and autumn, the busiest part of the year for Maine lobstermen, is quickly drawing near, he said.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Baldacci said Live Lobster plans to begin sales operations in Prospect Harbor immediately by buying lobster from and selling bait to local fishermen. He said the firm will have to equip the now-empty facility with machinery before lobster processing can begin.
“They’ll be doing a lot of work at the plant,” Baldacci said.
Baldacci gave credit to Bumble Bee Foods CEO Chris Lischewski and members of Maine’s congressional delegation for helping to smooth the transition by meeting with Lischewski and making sure the former Stinson workers had the assistance they needed in finding new jobs or in making ends meet while a new owner was being found.
“When we do anything, we want to do it for the long term,” Baldacci said. “I think there’s great potential here.”
At midafternoon Wednesday, the only person to be found at the plant was Peter Colson, the plant’s former manager. Colson and Al West, the cannery’s former fish buyer, have continued working for Bumble Bee since the April shutdown by making sure the building was maintained and by overseeing other tasks, Colson said.
He said that among the things he and West have done is facilitate ongoing boat deliveries of lobster bait to the plant, though the volume of fish delivered has been greatly reduced. They also have overseen the demolition of an old house on the property, converted the use of a tank from storing soy bean oil to water, and maintained the remaining systems in the plant — all with the needs of a new owner in mind.
Colson said he had not talked to Bumble Bee or to Live Lobster Co. about the announcement and so declined to comment on the sale of the plant, but as news leaked out Wednesday afternoon he received calls and visits from a few former cannery employees who had heard the news and expressed an interest in applying for jobs. Colson said that it was too early to apply for anything yet, but that if he could he would pass their names on to Live Lobster Co.
One person who stopped briefly at the plant Wednesday to see Colson was Charles Stinson, whose family founded the former Stinson Seafood company and sold it in 1990. Stinson and Colson chatted about their families and friends, accidents involving herring trucks, and how the news of the plant’s sale was spreading through town.
They didn’t get into details about Bumble Bee or the new owner, but Stinson did say he will be happy to see the tradition of seafood processing kept alive in Prospect Harbor.
“It will be great to see this place busy again,” Stinson said.