KINGFIELD, Maine — Five years ago — in a political atmosphere where water extraction was viewed with suspicion — local residents voted down a proposed moratorium aimed at slowing down any major development.
Later that same year, Poland Spring broke ground on its newest bottling plant in the town, opening the Kingfield facility in 2009.
Since that opening, the Kingfield plant has roughly doubled its work force, with 70 employees now working in the rural foothills of western Maine.
On Wednesday, company officials and community leaders gathered to celebrate a milestone in the young plant’s life: The Kingfield facility was named the best factory in the country by Nestle Waters North America, the parent company of Poland Spring.
“I came to the woods of Kingfield, Maine, and found some of the best workers on the planet,” said plant manager Cameron Lorrain.
The $60 million plant is the smallest of Nestle Waters’ 26 in the United States. The plant is LEED-certified, which means it meets a certain set of environmental standards through various aspects of construction, materials, energy use, recycling plans and other factors. In fact, the plant is the first in Maine certified to the gold standard, the next-to-highest standard.
The 209,000-square-foot facility still has room to expand production, said Lorrain. Two lines are currently running, and two more could be added, which would bring employment up to about 120, he said.
“As the economy and market allows, this would be one of the targets to increase lines and receive capital,” said Lorrain.
Workers at the plant have full medical and dental benefits, and pay ranges from $16 an hour to $24 an hour, he said.
Manufacturing in Maine has declined in recent decades, but remains an important part of the economy, with roughly 51,000 people employed in manufacturing in 2010, according to the latest state data. And while industry in rural Maine faces challenges, there are still wood-turning plants, metal fabrication companies and lumbering operations active in Franklin County.
Add water bottling to the mix, and the economy becomes even more diversified, with sectors such as tourism and service industries filling out the mix, noted Heather Moody, chairwoman of the town’s Board of Selectmen.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, visited the plant Wednesday and said Poland Spring saw value in not only the water from the area but in the work force, as well. She said she learned Wednesday that Cianbro Corp. was a main contractor that worked on the construction of the plant, and other local firms also were involved. The company sources much of its supplies from Maine companies, including the cardboard used in packaging, which comes from the International Paper plant in Auburn, Collins said.
In addition, local trucking companies haul the product out and supplies in. “A plant like this in rural Maine has a ripple effect that is many times the number of employees working here,” the senator said.
One challenge to any rural Maine firm that ships product is transportation costs, said Collins. She said that she continues to try to get weight limits on federal highways in Maine lifted to 100,000 pounds, which had been the case during a brief experiment she had passed through Congress.
Lorrain said the plant now sends out trucks that could hold 30 1-ton pallets of water with only 23 pallets, in order to meet the maximum weight regulations on the federal highway. During the experiment, they were shipping the same amount of product on 35 tri-axle trucks daily, as opposed to the 50 smaller trucks that ship out today, he said.
“We saved fuel, we saved trips,” he said.
Lorrain said the shift from a town contemplating a moratorium aimed at the plant to one embracing it largely came about because of the work of the Board of Selectmen. The members demanded hard numbers on geological studies, and had high standards for the building and for employment levels, as well, said Lorrain. He suggested that other small communities in Maine could learn from what the Kingfield board did.
“Good companies want to be challenged to great standards,” he said.
Reviewing the proposal was an education in itself, said board chairwoman Moody.
“We spent over two years learning about hydrogeology. Holy good Lord!” she said.
The town agreed to a tax increment financing deal, commonly called a TIF, worth about $23 million to the company over 30 years. Funds through the agreement are used for community improvements, such as sidewalks and a downtown revitalization project now being considered. As part of the TIF agreement, Poland Spring provided a $300,000 no-interest loan allowing the town to purchase some of the fields for which the community was originally named, said Moody.
The town didn’t make such a deal on the roughly $40 million in “personal property” at the plant, which includes the copious high-tech equipment in the facility. Taxes from that category are going into town coffers, Moody said.
Moody said she believes any opposition to the plant has faded in recent years.
“They’ve provided good jobs that aren’t slave labor, that pay well,” she said.
Lisa Standish, one community member who supported the moratorium at town meeting five years ago, said Wednesday in a telephone interview that Poland Spring has “been a generous community member,” declining to say more.