GOULDSBORO, Maine — It has been almost a year since the closure of the local Stinson Seafood sardine cannery was first announced, and feelings about the loss of the 100-plus-year-old facility are still raw.
Those feelings were evident Thursday night as a prospective buyer of the now-empty plant, where 128 people worked when it shut down last April, publicly feuded with local officials about his project and about the need for local jobs.
Selectmen told Antonio Bussone, whose Chelsea, Mass.-based Live Lobster company is on the verge of buying the shuttered plant from Bumble Bee Foods, that they want to help bring the plant back to life as a lobster processing facility. But they said Bussone has not provided them with information they have requested about his firm’s financial ability to make the project work.
As they did last fall when Bussone asked selectmen to sign off on his grant application for $400,000 in federal funds, selectmen said Thursday that they are opposed to using taxpayer money to fund a lobster-buying operation that will compete with local lobster dealers. Live Lobster, which owns, which owns and operates four other lobster-buying facilities in Maine, plans to start lobster-buying operations at the former sardine cannery this summer and to expand into lobster processing at the site within a couple of years.
Bussone has said he hopes eventually to employ approximately the same number of people in Gouldsboro that Bumble Bee did.
Bussone asked selectmen again Thursday night to endorse his company’s grant application, which is a requirement of the federal Community Development Block Grant program. He told them that the CDBG program now limits grants to $200,000 but that he still wants the money to put toward renovations at the plant, which he wants to begin as soon as possible. He said he expects to complete the purchase within the next two weeks.
But selectmen told Bussone that their position has not changed since he first approached them about the grant last August.
“We’ve been kicking this around for several months now,” Selectman Jim McLean told Bussone. “As far as I can see it, you haven’t done anything [since last fall].”
Bussone said he had hoped to complete the sale by now, but Bumble Bee has not come up with all the documentation necessary to do that. He said he wants to begin lobster-buying operations at the site and to hire 40 people by this June.
“We are trying to bring people back to work,” Bussone said. “We have a work force here that can be retrained quickly.”
The $200,000 in CDBG grant money, Bussone said, would pay for a new freezer that would be crucial to the lobster-processing operation.
Bussone was critical of the reception he says local officials have given him. He asked Dana Rice, Gouldsboro’s first selectman, why Rice said he “was not happy” that Live Lobster was buying the plant. He quoted Rice saying so from the minutes of a public meeting on Aug. 5, 2010.
“Why would you say that?” Bussone asked Rice.
Rice, a lobster dealer who has abstained from votes about the grant, said his unhappiness was based not on Live Lobster coming to Gouldsboro, but on the firm’s request for a taxpayer subsidy. He said Live Lobster was welcome to compete with other local lobster dealers on a level playing field.
“I’m not happy to use federal money to subsidize competition for me and for other people in Gouldsboro,” Rice said.
Bussone said the town also is demanding a planning board review for Live Lobster’s proposal, even though the use of the facility is not changing. Live Lobster, like Stinson Seafood, will be using the plant for storing and processing seafood and for subsidiary uses such as maintaining its truck fleet, he said.
“We feel like we keep getting stumbling blocks from the town,” Bussone told selectmen. “Your [code enforcement officer] is grossly abusing the authority that he has” by saying Live Lobster needs local planning board approval.
Selectman James Watson, however, said Live Lobster was to blame for the slow process in getting the property transferred and renovated. He said he and other selectmen have been asking since last fall, without success, for documentation about Live Lobster’s financial footing and its strategic plan for expanding into lobster processing. He said he wants a guarantee that the grant will not subsidize the firm’s lobster-buying operation.
“I need to see that in writing and to be assured,” Watson said. “Lip service will not give me what I am looking for. Don’t blame the town of Gouldsboro for the slow process.”
Bussone had several supporters among the 30 or so people at the meeting. Diana Young, a longtime Stinson employee, told selectmen to consider the taxpayer money that is going toward unemployment, food stamps and heating fuel assistance for people who lost their jobs when Bumble Bee left town. That amount likely is more than $200,000, she said.
Al West, the former fish buyer for Stinson, said he already has been hired by Bussone.
“He’s a workaholic. He never sleeps,” West said of Bussone. “He’ll be an asset to the community.”
West said that Bussone is not proposing to do anything different at the site than what Stinson did, including maintaining its truck fleet. He said he would go the to the local planning board’s Feb. 15 meeting to try to convince the board that getting new land use approvals for the plant is unnecessary.
Michael Baran of the state Department of Economic and Community Development assured selectmen that their concerns can be addressed through the grant process. DECD will verify the financial viability of Live Lobster’s proposal before it awards the money, he said. The grant, he added, can be set up so the town gets the money and pays it directly to an equipment vendor without Live Lobster ever having control over the funds.
“The town decides how the money will be spent,” Baran said.
At the end of the discussion, selectmen voted 4-0-1 — with Rice abstaining — to sign a letter of intent in support of the grant, with the understanding that they can change their minds if their concerns are not addressed.
Bussone promised he would provide selectmen with whatever detailed financial information about Live Lobster that they would like to see.
After the meeting, Bussone said he has all the financing in place for acquiring the plant and that the purchase will move ahead regardless of whether he gets the grant. But the more funding he has to renovate the facility, the quicker he can make his goal of processing lobster in Gouldsboro a reality.
Bussone added that his experience in Gouldsboro has been “extremely different” from his experience two years ago in Stonington, when Live Lobster bought a defunct lobster-buying facility there.
“Everybody was helpful,” Bussone said.