LINCOLN, Maine — It’s been awhile since U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was thought of only as Sam Collins’ sister.
But as she stood before several hundred Lincoln Lake’s Region Chamber of Commerce members on Saturday night, the Republican occupant of the seat once occupied by Margaret Chase Smith joked that her old title might be the most appropriate.
“I really thought that I would just like to be introduced as Sam’s sister. That probably, in this community, at this time, would be the best way that I could be introduced,” Collins said.
So distressed has the Lincoln Lakes community been with last month’s layoff of 200 Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC workers, Collins said, that one of the biggest questions she gets lately has been “Is S.W. Collins Co. still coming to town?”
Despite the layoffs, the fifth-generation Aroostook County lumber and building supply franchise is proceeding with plans to build an approximately 43,000-square-foot warehouse, storefront and storage area off West Broadway and Penobscot Valley Avenue, both Collins said during the dinner, which was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall off Route 2.
Town officials have said they hope the store and warehouse would lead to the building of a perpendicular road from Penobscot Valley Avenue between West Broadway and Route 155 for businesses and more development on Penobscot Valley Road.
The Planning Board and Maine Department of Environmental Protection are reviewing company building plans for the land S.W. Collins bought from Thomas and Scott Gardner of Lincoln for $40,000 in November 2012. Construction is set to begin this spring, said Sam Collins, the company’s president.
His older sister used the occasion to bolster community spirits in the wake of the layoffs. She praised the region’s sense of community and the Chamber’s accomplishment of increasing its membership from 110 to 173 members over the last 12 months.
“Along with those accomplishments, last year ended with a great challenge — the distressing news of layoffs at Lincoln Paper and Tissue. I know what a difficult decision this was for the company to make and its deep concern for the workers and the surrounding communities,” said Collins, whose family has a summer camp in the region that she visits frequently.
She described how she successfully pushed U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez to approve the Trade Adjustment Assistance application the mill had filed. During a meeting with Perez last Thursday, Collins said she wanted him to approve the job retraining, wage subsidies and re-employment services for the laid-off workers.
“‘But senator, it was just filed a couple of weeks ago. We got the information we need but it takes awhile to process it,’” Collins quoted Perez as saying.
“I said, ‘Try a little harder than that,’” Collins added.
Collins got word at 6 p.m. that night that the application was approved, she said.
After her speech, Collins said she didn’t see any great opportunities for her to give immediate economic help for LPT or the region. She co-wrote a letter asking federal officials to consider the impact upon the region of a $5 million Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lawsuit charging the mill’s operators with fraud. Mill leaders have denied the allegation.
Collins said she couldn’t see doing more about the suit. “That, unfortunately, is a judicial process,” Collins said of the lawsuit.
During the speech, Collins told the audience how she was pushing for more nationwide infrastructure improvements, her successful efforts to change federal regulations and allow 18-wheelers on Interstate 95 north of Bangor, and her seven-point plan for Maine jobs.
The plan calls for increased workforce development through competitive grants for partnerships that include higher education institutions and repealing Obamacare fines on businesses with 50 or more full-time workers that fail to provide qualified insurance coverage.
It supports continuing federal infrastructure grants such as the $6 million grant for improvements to Eastport, protects small businesses from fines arising from harmless first-time violations of federal paperwork violations, seeks more Department of Energy offshore wind grants and would mandate that all U.S. military uniforms are made in America.
“Those are some of the practical proposals that have the potential to energize our economy, put people back to work here in Maine and around the country,” Collins said. “Common sense, hard work and pulling together in times of difficulty and celebrating our success are the values that define our state. These are the values of the Lincoln Lakes Region that we honor and celebrate tonight.”