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GOULDSBORO, Maine — Once again, there are signs that the former Stinson Seafood sardine cannery in the village of Prospect Harbor is coming back to life.
Two years ago, it was Live Lobster that was trying to reincarnate the sprawling 100,000-square-foot cannery as a lobster processing plant. This year, it is Maine Fair Trade Lobster, a joint venture between Garbo Lobster and East Coast Seafood.
Renovations have begun at the cavernous facility, with workmen preparing a 23,000-square-foot warehouse space at the southern end of the complex for new processing equipment that will be installed in the coming months.
The processing plant could end up being one of the largest, if not the largest, processing facility in the state, according to people familiar with the companies’ plans. The plant is projected to start out processing 50,000 pounds of lobster a day, six days a week for up to nine months a year, which would put it on pace to process more than 10 million pounds each year.
Initial plans also call for hiring around 160 employees, people familiar with the venture said. That is more than the 128 employees who worked at the plant when Bumble Bee Foods shut down the sardine canning operation in April 2010. The sardine cannery was more than 100 years old and the last of its kind in the United States when it closed.
Garbo Lobster and East Coast Seafood hope to succeed where Live Lobster failed in establishing a viable lobster processing operation in Prospect Harbor. Unlike Live Lobster, which was a smaller firm with no processing experience, Garbo and East Coast Seafood are more established in the North American lobster industry.
Garbo, based in Stonington, Conn., is the largest buyer of live lobster in Maine and has a live lobster storage and distribution facility about 20 miles away in Hancock. East Coast, based in Lynn, Mass., is a global distributor of Maine and Canadian lobster and owns and operates the Paturel lobster processing facility on Deer Island, just across the Canadian border in New Brunswick.
At its processing peak, in late 2011, Live Lobster employed 70 people at the Gouldsboro plant, but it was undone by financial problems. It was sued for $3.5 million by a former company executive and by its bank, which froze the firm’s accounts and accused it of not living up to its financial obligations. Live Lobster ceased operations in Maine last March and, last September, its assets were auctioned off by TD Bank.
As for the new owners, Christina Ferranti Clift, spokeswoman for East Coast Seafood, declined on Wednesday to comment on what kind of employment levels or production capacity is envisioned for the plant, or to indicate what sort of processed products will be made there.
Presumably, the products coming out of Gouldsboro could be similar to what Paturel makes at Deer Island, which includes raw l obster tails,frozen whole cooked lobsters, cocktail lobster claws, vacuum-sealed picked lobster meat, blanched claws and arms in-the-shell, and something called “popsicle lobsters,” which are cooked and frozen whole lobsters vacuum-sealed in bags with saltwater brine.
Clift confirmed that renovations have begun at the Gouldsboro plant and the goal is to start processing lobster at the site by the time lobster fishing resumes in earnest early this summer.
In a prepared statement released Wednesday, Bill Darling, project manager for Maine Fair Trade Lobster, said the firm changed its original strategy for renovating the site. It still plans to retrofit some part of the processing infrastructure installed by Live Lobster, but decided that it “made more sense to start from scratch to create a new more flexible operation” in the large and empty warehouse space. As a result, he added, the company is planning to install larger pieces of processing equipment than it had anticipated.
Michael Tourkistas, president and CEO of East Coast Seafood, said in the same statement that the two companies are committed to “long-term viability” of the fledgling Prospect Harbor operation.
“Longevity is everything in our business, and for 30 years we have centered our business on the heart of the industry — people,” Tourkistas said. “As vested stakeholders in the lobster industry, we are committed to responsible business and sustainable practices for all partners in the sales chain, including fishermen, employees and customers.”
David Garbo, CEO of Garbo Lobster, said his company has a “proven history” of working with Maine fishermen and a reputation for supporting local communities where it does business. He said Garbo and East Coast Seafood share a similar philosophy.
“We are currently the biggest buyer of live lobster in the state,” Garbo said in the statement. “We are looking forward to continuing our traditions with our partner, East Coast Seafood.”
According to Clift, the company already has started seeking prospective employees. It has been getting inquiries from people who have completed an online application form posted on Maine Fair Trade Lobster’s website — www.mftlobster.com — she said, and it has scheduled a job fair for 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday, April 3, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on Main Street in Ellsworth. An open house will be scheduled at the plant later this spring, she added.
According to information posted on the website, the company is offering “competitive wages from $10 to $12.50 per hour depending on experience and position.”
Dana Rice, a local selectman and lobster dealer who sells to Garbo, is helping the plant’s new owners get off the ground.
Like other local selectmen, Rice had concerns about whether Live Lobster had the financial wherewithal to make the plant a success again. Because he is a local lobster dealer, and to avoid any potential conflict he may have had, Rice recused himself from selectmen votes about whether the town would endorse Live Lobster’s application for government financial support of its ultimately doomed efforts.
This week, Rice was manning the offices at the plant, letting workmen inside the cavernous facility so they could get it ready.
“I am committed to doing whatever I can do to make this work,” Rice said Tuesday, adding that he would pound nails if asked.
Rice said Tuesday he will not be involved in the lobster processing operation but may oversee use of the pier on the property, which is the only deep-water pier east of Rockland that can pump fish off boats. He said herring trawlers likely will pay usage fees in Prospect Harbor to unload their catch, some of which probably will be sold as bait to local fishermen.
Rice said he has a lot of confidence in the plant’s new ownership.
“I couldn’t be happier [with the situation],” he said. “These people have the money — and experience — to make it work.”