GOULDSBORO, Maine — The closing on the sale of the former Stinson Seafood sardine cannery has been delayed, an official involved in the transaction said Friday, but he is confident the deal will be completed in the next few weeks.
Live Lobster, based in Chelsea, Mass., has been working to buy the former cannery from Bumble Bee Foods since at least last August. In February 2010, Bumble Bee announced it planned to close the plant, which was the last remaining sardine cannery in the United States, because of federal reductions in herring catch limits. Sardines are canned herring.
Antonio Bussone, president of Live Lobster, said that his firm had hoped to close on the deal Friday, but that it likely will be another few weeks before Live Lobster can take ownership of the plant.
“We need to get in and start working,” Bussone said of making changes to the facility to make it more suitable for lobster and bait distribution. “If we delay a little bit, it’s not a big deal.”
Bussone declined to indicate why the closing was being delayed, but said financing is not the issue.
A former business partner of Bussone’s had filed a lawsuit last June against Live Lobster in federal court in Massachusetts, claiming that he was wrongfully terminated from his job with the company. The lawsuit complicated the sale of the cannery to Live Lobster because it prevented the company from using its existing assets as collateral in lining up financing for the purchase.
According to documents on file with U.S. District Court in Boston, the parties agreed Dec. 30 to have the lawsuit dismissed.
Bussone said the lawsuit has been “absolutely resolved” and was not the reason the closing did not happen Friday.
“We have the financing in place,” Bussone said.
The plant has been idle since last April, when the last can of sardines rolled off the conveyor belts. Bumble Bee laid off 128 people when it closed the plant and moved the cannery’s sardine processing and packing equipment to a cannery in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that is owned by Bumble Bee subsidiary Connors Bros.
Bussone’s company is interested in processing lobster at the plant, which has existed in the local village of Prospect Harbor in one form or another since the early 1900s. Live Lobster plans to begin operations at the site this May as a lobster and bait distribution center.
Before it can begin buying lobster and selling bait, the plant will need new storage capacity for both of those things, according to Bussone. He said it likely will take two and a half to three months to install a new float tank for lobster and a new cooler for bait. The lobster tank will be able to hold 160,000 pounds of lobster while the bait freezer will have a 250,000 pound capacity.
Bussone said he expects to employ between 30 and 40 people in Prospect Harbor when operations begin in the spring. If other pieces fall into place in the coming years, including a healthy market for lobster products, he said, Live Lobster hopes eventually to employ roughly the same number of people at the plant as when it closed last April, he said.
“It is possible. If everything goes right, yes,” Bussone said of expanding operations at the site. “We’re very excited about it. It was a long way to get here.”
Live Lobster Co. now employs 80 to 90 people, most of them in Maine at buying stations in Phippsburg, Rockland, Spruce Head and Stonington, Bussone has said. It also employs three or four people at a buying station in Gloucester, Mass., and about 30 at its main offices in Chelsea, near Logan Airport in Boston. Live Lobster was founded in 2001 and began operations in Maine the next year, according to Bussone.
Live Lobster is exclusively a live lobster distributor that sells to wholesalers in Europe, Asia and across the United States. The plant in Prospect Harbor would be its first foray into lobster processing.