MONSON, Maine — Upset that wood and wood manufacturing jobs have been leaving the state, a Portland woman is investing her money to reverse that trend despite the weak economy.
Louise M. Jonaitis, owner of the Grand State O’Maine Land Co. in Newry and Hanover, submitted a winning $1,050,000 bid at public auction Tuesday to become the new owner of the former Moosehead Manufacturing Co. property in Monson. She expects the mill to be making furniture again in three to six months. She said she doesn’t yet know how many employees she might hire.
Monson Town Manager Julie Anderson said she is pleased the mill will reopen.
“This is very exciting news,” she said. “I’m glad someone bought the property to reopen the business and employ people in the area.”
Gov. John Baldacci issued a statement applauding the sale.
“I am pleased with the new owner’s business plan, which has the promise of growing jobs with its successful implementation,” he said. “My office and I provided assistance to Ms. Jonaitis and her team to get to this important point, and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development will continue to work with Ms. Jonaitis through completion of the process.”
Jonaitis, whose land company includes a tourmaline mine in Newry, also recently purchased at auction a Saunders Brothers plant in Locke Mills and another in Fryeburg. Both manufacture dowels and other wood products and will work in sync with the Monson plant, she said Tuesday.
Hugh Stevens of a University of Maine initiative called the Knowledge Transfer Alliance is helping Jonaitis develop a business plan for the three mills.
“We are prepared and stand ready to work with her through the entire length of the project, whatever time it takes,” Stevens said Tuesday.
Moosehead Manufacturing went under in 2007. A business group formed and reopened the Monson plant as Moosehead Furniture later that year, but it shut down two years later, putting 125 people out of work.
Jonaitis said that letting Moosehead Furniture fail would have been a “shameful thing.”
“It was sort of ironic to me that you see all these lists publicized that we’re the most heavily forested state in the country, yet we’re sitting up here in the woods and literally can’t see the forest through the trees about what we need to do,” she said. “We just need to stake our claim that we’re going to be the wood manufacturing state, the best in New England and best in the world. We can. It’s very possible because the talent is all within the people.”
Rosaire Pelletier, Maine’s senior forest products adviser, said he and other state officials are happy Jonaitis got the mill.
“We wanted to keep it as an auxiliary unit and we wanted to create jobs, as the governor has always been working hard to do,” Pellietier said Tuesday. “We [wish] Louise much success in her venture: she’s great for Maine.”
Jonaitis said she attended a scheduled public auction for the property in January but was interested then in the purchase of only the Moosehead logo and the intellectual property. “I told my family all winter that someone needed to save the moose [logo],” she said.
That auction never happened because the owners of Moosehead Furniture Co. filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in order to work with a potential buyer, the Passsamaquoddy Indian Tribe.
When the Passamaquoddy Indians decided not to purchase the business, the property was again scheduled for auction.
While the attendance at Tuesday’s auction was lower than the one in January, some bidders still came from miles away. Mark Malocsay of Warwick, N.Y., went home empty-handed in January and again Tuesday.
“I just wanted to upgrade some support equipment for a sawmill,” he said.
When Tuesday’s auction was delayed while Jonaitis discussed financial details with someone by cell phone, Malocsay said, “I’m sweating my butt off and I could be fishing.”
Unwilling to wait any longer and apologizing for the delay, auctioneer Steve Keenan of Keenan Auction Co. began the piecemeal auction of equipment. He warned the bidders, however, that a bid on the entire property and business might void their bids.
“What we cannot and will not lose sight of is that there may be an opportunity to preserve a business that has been here for many, many years and jobs,” Keenan said. “This is a very small community and this is a very big deal to them.”
At about noon, when approximately 100 of the 626 lots had been auctioned off, Jonaitis submitted her bid. Setting her offer aside, Keenan asked if there were any bids for just the real estate. When there was none, he then asked if there were any bids for the equipment, vehicles and other “intangibles.” One bid of $10,001 was submitted for the intangibles.
Keenan told the crowd that if the bid for the entire property was more than the real estate and intangible bids combined, that bid would be accepted. Although the lots sold by noon amounted only to $18,980, Keenan gave the bidders the option to continue with the piecemeal auction even though the total sale likely wouldn’t reach or exceed the $1 million bid that Jonaitis made. The bidders opted to stop the auction and left the property.
As they left, many congratulated Jonaitis even though they didn’t get the deals they had hoped for.
“I guess you can see a pattern of the mills going up for auction and they’re getting shipped out of Maine in the middle of a recession,” Jonaitis told one bidder. “To get that much capital again to ever start these mills up will be virtually impossible.”
Jonaitis was pleased with her purchase even if it doesn’t make her money, she said.
“We are the best wood manufacturers in the world,” she said. “We just don’t know how to take claim of it yet. I hedged that someday Maine would realize what we have — and we are giving it away. We can’t let that keep happening.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.