MONSON, Maine — “Will you give me $500?” an auctioneer asked a bidder as the auctioneer’s rapid-fire flow of numbers wound down on a piece of equipment Saturday at the former Moosehead Furniture Co. plant in Monson.
Everything was up for grabs Saturday, including furniture-making machines, parts, wooden pieces, tools and vehicles. It appeared to be the end of an era for this Piscataquis County town, which had manufactured the Moosehead brand furniture for many decades.
“The hope would be that we as citizens of Maine find a way to mitigate our own losses,” Louise Jonaitis of Portland, who owned the contents of the Moosehead plant, said Saturday.
Jonaitis, owner of the Grand State O’ Maine Land Co. in Newry and Hanover, had hoped to help toward that end when submitted a winning $1,050,000 bid at public auction to become the new business owner. She had expected to resume making furniture in Monson three to six months later.
But before any money changed hands, Jonaitis learned there were environmental questions involving barrels of unidentified chemicals that had been left on the property.
Because of those uncertainties, Jonaitis negotiated with Machias Savings Bank, which had foreclosed on the property, for the purchase of just the inventory. She said last month that she hadn’t given up on reopening the plant, but rather than own the building, she would lease it.
That appeared to be out of the question Saturday as piece after piece of equipment was auctioned off to bidders from as far away as Tennessee.
Asked how optimistic she was of making furniture in Monson in the future, Jonaitis said she was 70 percent pessimistic and 30 percent optimistic, considering the difficulties of the economy. She has opened a Moosehead furniture retail outlet store in the Monson Community Center and intends to maintain that business in the future, she said.
The former Moosehead Manufacturing Co. first went to bankruptcy auction in 2007 when the local Wentworth and Durham families, who had operated the business for 60 years, decided to close, in part because of foreign imports. About 125 employees lost their jobs when the plant closed.
Before the business and property went to auction however, a business group spearheaded by Josh Tardy, a lawyer, and Dana Connors, former state transportation commissioner, secured enough funds later that same year for its purchase. They began manufacturing under the new name of Moosehead Furniture Co.
Two years later, Tardy and Connors discovered they did not have the capital to weather the poor economy. They, too, shut the doors, putting about 30 employees back on the unemployment rolls.
That prompted Machias Savings Bank, the primary lender for the new business, to place the property and equipment up for auction again. Seconds into the auction, however, it was announced that Tardy and Connors had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. That stopped the auction and allowed the partners and the bank to work with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which had expressed interest in the business. When the tribe decided soon after to opt out, the bank again placed the property and equipment up for auction. Jonaitis then stepped in, hoping to save the furniture-making business, but was confronted soon afterward with the environmental issues.
Those environmental issues are being addressed by Monson town officials in conjunction with the bank and John Holden of Eaton Peabody Consulting Group, who is under contract as interim director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council. Town officials hope to secure grants to purchase the former mill and to conduct its cleanup.
Meanwhile, Jonaitis said she is “re-branding” the Moosehead name in Maine and the United States and is producing three new collections that will be made elsewhere in the state.
Jonaitis, who said she had moved most of the finished furniture at the Moosehead plant to her retail market, was actually bidding on some of the property Saturday. Asked why she would bid on property she owned, she said she was doing so on behalf of some friends who were unable to attend the auction.
While the attendance was not as large as the previous two auction attempts, those who showed up appeared to be happy with their deals.