Magic City, Part 4 - A Boom Town in The County, a New Magic City
Thursday, November 13, 2014 7:13 AM
Bob Moscone was going to be late.
“What will I do? Who knows. I’ve been saving for a long time. First it was textiles, then chickens, then shoes. Now, it’s paper mills. Anybody who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention,” said a Verso mill worker in the company parking lot, before picking up his dinner bucket and heading to punch in for the October 3 night shift. (Photos by C. Parrish)
October 2 would turn into a glorious 70-degree Indian summer day with the maples flaming orange in peak fall splendor set against a backdrop of the purple mountains of Baxter Park, but in the early pre-dawn, it was 30 degrees and ground-hugging fog had settled into the steep rolling dips of Route 11, shrouding the lowland bogs so that it was hard to tell the difference between a moose and a misshapen black spruce.
Moscone had pulled out of his driveway at five in the morning, driven up I-95, took the exit at Sherman, and swung north on Route 11 - known to the locals as Moose Alley - and headed out of the deep woods into the rolling farm fields of The County just as it started getting light.
Moscone had 99 miles to drive to work, one way, to his job as an auxiliary boiler operator at the ReEnergy plant that had just opened its doors in Ashland.
This was a different gig than the union jobs Moscone had grown up with at the Millinocket and East Millinocket paper mills, when his wife, Laurie, worked one shift and he worked another so the kids would always have a parent at home. That was a 10-minute drive to work. Maybe 15.
Still, Moscone knew boilers. It was one of the jobs he had held over the years at the Millinocket and East Millinocket mills, starting in 1974, when he was 22 years old. He had worked his way up to the Number 11 paper machine at Great Northern Paper in Millinocket and ended at the East Millinocket mill in February of this year, when he was laid off because the owners couldn't pay their electricity bills.
"Went in, they said: 'You're done.' No warning. No nothing."
Moscone didn't know ReEnergy. It was new on the Maine scene. New, all around, really. Founded in New York in 2008, ReEnergy had bought four biomass-to-energy plants in Maine three years ago, and another in Lewiston that turns construction debris into electricity. His cousin got a job at the Ashland plant a month or so earlier and liked it. Moscone figured a boiler is a boiler, whether it generates power to make paper or power to sell to the grid.
ReEnergy had hired 25 people in Ashland and, at full production, the company says they will buy about $17 million of woody debris a year directly from local loggers.
On Route 11, Moscone passed a slowly collapsing barn as big and grand as a courthouse, set up high on the side of a hill. Passed a road owned by Irving. Another Irving lot. Passed an Irving stand of timber as neat and orderly as rows of corn. Hard to call that a forest, really. Nothing complicated there. A crop, more like. Passed another Irving road and crossed the Eastern Maine Railway freight tracks that Irving operates on 261 miles across Aroostook County.
Those $27-an-hour union jobs? Thing of the past.
The number of trees cut for pulp to turn into paper had peaked for spruce and fir 30 years ago, then resurged for a new peak in 1995 using hardwoods.
To outsiders, the timber industry might seem like a thing of the past, too; a bunch of guys in Carhartt's wielding chainsaws, with one tree pretty much the same as the next.
That's not what timber harvesting looks like these days. One guy sits in the cab of a large, expensive machine that grabs the trees with a mechanical arm, saws them off, picks them up, loads them and sends them off to the mill.
Even with all the bad news, the timber industry is still an important piece of the state's economy, no matter how you dice the numbers.
"The forest economy is not just about paper and lumber," said Patrick Strauch, the director of the Maine Forest Products Council, an industry advocacy group. There are biomass-to-energy plants, extracting chemicals from wood to be used in other industries, and engineered wood. New wood composites are stronger and cheaper to make than carbon fiber and are being added to cement for flexibility. Other nano-cellulose products are stronger than steel and, among other uses, are being added to wall paint to inhibit rot and prevent scuffing.
Still, at least for now, paper is still the biggest player in the Maine forest economy.
That's the story, anyway, said Moscone.
When Moscone was in his early thirties, he was making $17.50 an hour.
"Thirty years later, I'm making $18."
Fifty-seven years old. Too young to retire. Twelve-hour shift and lucky to have a job at all, now.
"I'm practically paying them so I can get up and go to work in the morning."
The kids are grown, at least. Grown and gone. Good jobs, too. The boy went to Maine Maritime. He's married, with three kids, living in New Hampshire and working at the Seabrook power plant. The daughter is training to be a nurse.
Move back? What for? There's nothing in Millinocket.
Maybe we had our heads up our butts, Stu Kallgren, the head of the local paper-workers union for East Millinocket, said. Thinking it would last.
Moscone had been driving Route 11 for three weeks. The rutting season, when the bull moose were so intent on fighting and mating that they failed to notice that they were about to slam into a truck and demolish it and maybe its occupants, had just begun.
Ninety-nine miles in the morning, 99 miles back at night. Two hours going, two hours coming.
Price of gas might go down, they're saying. Not yet. Be good if it did. Wife is driving 93 miles to work, one way, in the other direction, leaving the house in mid-afternoon to work a 12-hour night shift as a fast-paced paper tester.
She had been at the Verso mill in Bucksport - right at the mouth of the great Penobscot River, right in River City - for three years, making $15 an hour.
Some days they saw each other for 20 minutes. Some days, they didn't see each other at all.
Radio on. Coffee in the cup holder, hands on the wheel, eyes on the spruce.
Or is that a moose?
Irving probably owns it, too.
"I hate that road," Moscone said.
The governor was late, too. His plane from Augusta had been rerouted because of the fog and was landing in Presque Isle.
On October 2, ReEnergy was one of three mills celebrating grand openings in Ashland on the same day. With wide farm fields and forests sprawled out over three and a half million acres, The County, as more than one person told me, is bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut, combined. There's logging, mill work, farm work and not a heckuva lot of anything else.
Three new mills opening in and near the town of Ashland, population 1,428, was a very big deal.
Ecoshel Cedar Shingle, the first mill on the Grand Opening Tour, was in a new building in the mostly deserted Levesque mill complex, which had been cleared out of the forest in 1979 for a pine mill and a framing lumber mill. When it all went bust in the 2007-2008 recession, a sprawling, mostly empty lot became the complex centerpiece.
The Ecoshel mill, with a crowd of pickups and SUV's parked out front in the uneven packed dirt for the grand opening, was in one corner. There was still enough room for a Super Walmart or two in the vacant lot out the front door.
Dignitaries from Augusta and the University of Maine stood around in the morning chill, holding steaming cups of coffee and doing short interviews in front of the television cameras, waiting for the governor. The ground fog had dissipated, but it was damp, in the 30s, with the pungent smell of fresh-cut cedar hanging in the air.
Finally, Bryan Kirkey, the founder of Ecoshel, ushered everyone inside for announcements from a podium set up under bright lights just inside the mill delivery door.
The strong scent wasn't from Northern White Cedar, the local tree used to make shingles that weather to the Cape Cod gray favored in Maine. Kirkey might use Maine trees if markets develop further. For now, he's using Western Red Cedar from British Columbia, a market favorite across the Eastern U.S.
In Georgia, Kirkey came up with the idea of creating a fool-proof, pre-arranged system for siding a house with cedar shingles that took the guesswork out of spacing. After patenting the Smart Shingle system, he got to work to find a home for his business.
Maine looked favorably on his idea.
"They could have gone anywhere," said Rosaire Pelletier, the forest products advisor for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). Pelletier, a dapper man with a French-Canadian accent, worked in the paper and pulpwood industry for 40 years. He started scouting for places that might suit Kirkey, then introduced him to people who could help.
"He looked at three or four different locations," said Pelletier. "Ashland turned out to be ideal. It has good rail access and he could draw from a good workforce."
DECD also connected Kirkey to state programs to help fund his business.
Kirkey's state assistance included a fast-tracked Maine Rural Development Authority loan and a loan from the Maine Technology Institute. The Community Development Block Grant program and the Finance Authority of Maine also stepped in with assistance, while the DECD helped with site selection and connected Ecoshel with suppliers of raw materials.
Students and staff from the University of Maine's Advanced Manufacturing Center designed and built an assembly line for the cedar shingle panels, using a combination of laser technology and conventional woodworking equipment to create an automated system that scans and cuts raw lumber to produce one shingle every second.
Kirkey hired his first employees last winter when all he had was the shell of a building.
"There was no power, there were dirt floors and it was 30 below. They looked at me and said, 'Okay, what are we doing?'"Less than a year later, the first assembly line was in operation, with 20 employees. Orders are coming in and, with marketing kicking off, Kirkey thinks he will have 60 employees working on one assembly line by the end of the year. He's aiming to corner the market on pre-fab cedar shingle siding and roofing.
"We're looking at working with a TIF," said Ashland Town Manager Ralph Dwyer. A TIF, or tax increment financing from the town, would give Ecoshel a tax break, either through rebates or through improving services to Ecoshel. A road, say, or sewage lines. In return, Ecoshel promises jobs.
Senator Angus King took the podium at Ecoshel and declared Ashland a Boom Town in The County; a new kind of Magic City.
"I never thought I'd be able to say that," he said. "Today, I'm happy I can."
Jenn Farr and Kim Bowring didn't know about that. They were at the back end of the mill machinery, missing the VIP tour, wise-cracking as they caught shingles spat out at the end of the high-tech assembly and sorting them into firsts and seconds. They tossed defective shingles into a bin designated for wood waste that would later be converted to mulch.
Farr, a blonde woman in safety glasses and a bright pink sweatshirt, was 34. For three years she had been driving about an hour, round-trip, to the University of Maine at Presque Isle to attend classes where she is working towards a criminal justice degree.
She had been working at campus security 20 hours a week for $7.50 an hour when she heard about the job at Ecoshel.
"I'm making $12 an hour here," she said. "It's a lot better than the minimum wage I was making before."
She had been on the job two weeks, full-time, working from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., which fit with her role as a mom. She's got four kids at home - two teenagers and two 11-year-olds - and she's still enrolled three-quarters-time at the university.
"It's a busy schedule and a lot of traveling," she said.
Fifty-three-year-old Kim Bowring had been at Ecoshel full-time since August. The $12 hourly wage was several dollars more than she had made at her previous job.
After the press conference, I found Senator King unattended in the parking lot, so I walked over and asked him what he thought was the major contributing factor to the decline in the paper industry in Maine.
The Millinocket mill had been stripped and sold by its owners, Cate Street Capital, who had bought it and the East Millinocket mill for $1 in 2011, but only after the state agreed to take over the associated Dolby landfill that would cost at least $17 million to close and cap.
Who do you think will pay for that? Moscone asked me, later. You and me, that's who.
Cate Street was now in liquidation bankruptcy. The East Millinocket mill might still find a buyer. It might be sold for parts.
As of November 10, as this edition of The Free Press went to press, the state had found a buyer for the Old Town Fuel and Fiber pulp mill, which had closed in August, putting 180 people out of work. The plan was to reopen the mill in 2015.
But on my way up to Boom Town on October 1, Verso Paper announced that it was closing the Bucksport paper mill after five years of not making a profit, a decision that would leave over 500 people who drive to work from every county in the state picking up their last paycheck just before Christmas.
"New England had the highest prices for natural gas in the world last winter," said King. "And they're going to be higher this winter."
"It's the lack of natural gas pipeline capacity that's key," he said.
A simple fix - a gas pipeline or finding yet another buyer for the East Millinocket mill - isn't the trick, John Williams, the head of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, told me.
"It's not the high cost of energy," said Williams.
If the key is not the cost of energy, what is it?
"Tablets. The Kindle. The iPad," he said. "We didn't see that coming."
The paper industry is as dynamic as any global industry, subject to changing markets and demands.
"Our paper is competitive on price for high-quality paper," said Williams, but demand for it continues to shrink, even as global demand is up for lower-print-quality paper in developing Asian countries that are just starting to put out sales catalogs. But that paper, produced from fast-growing Eucalyptus in Brazil and elsewhere, is super cheap.
"Mills like East Millinocket are going to have to retool for specialty products: dog food bags, wrapping paper, sugar packets," said Williams. "Not big rolls of paper, not paper for print."
Besides, it would take years to put in a pipeline.
An aide tugged on the senator's sleeve. It was time to go to the next stop on the grand tour: ReEnergy.
ReEnergy, which is based in New York, is devoted to making power from abundant local fuel supplies, while reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and creating local jobs in rural areas. They went after the green forestry seal of approval, buying woody debris only from companies that claim to use responsible forestry practices. It's the forest industry public relations equivalent of dolphin-safe tuna.
ReEnergy's parent company, Riverstone Holdings, is a global private equity energy investment company that deals in coal, natural gas, and oil, as well as renewable energy. Riverstone claims to have a "flat, nimble structure" that allows it to ditch operations that don't turn a profit in two years.
"It's always about the money," said Moscone, philosophically, with a coffee in his hand at the VIP reception under a big white tent out on the lawn. There were six kinds of donuts and a tray of plums and peaches and the ReEnergy workers were mingling on an approved break.
The governor had come, given a speech, and had gone down the road to the new $30 million Irving lumber mill in Nashville Plantation, just outside of Ashland, for more speeches, a lunch with alarmingly pink frankfurters and two kinds of pasta salad, followed by a tour of the most hi-tech lumber mill operation in North America. The production line was fitted with computer screens that monitored the rapid path of logs as they were being ripped clean of bark and shunted into cutters. It clocked the speed of the lumber, mixed rough green with dry smooth lumber, diverting the green off to the kiln to dry, sending the dry to be stacked, packed. The Irving mill provided 60 new jobs.
Jim Irving, a very tall white-haired man in a nicely cut suit who runs the forest and transportation operations in Maine for the company, would look down at me in the parking lot later in the afternoon, fixing me with pale eyes when I asked if the easing of the state's strict clear-cutting policy in favor of a more malleable timber harvesting approach influenced Irving's decision to rebuild the mill in Nashville Plantation.
Unlike the global investment firms who hoovered up the mills on the cheap, then spat them out a year or two later when the return on investment was in the negative numbers, Irving owned 1.2 million acres of Maine and was growing crop trees on most of it, planting them, tending them, investing in them, cutting them, growing some more, adding jobs and spurring the slowpoke economy along. They had been around for over half a century and it was unlikely they were going to cut and run. Still, the Irving dynasty was as close to royalty as northern Maine and New Brunswick gets and held a privileged position as the largest landowner in the state.
The Irvings had the pull to influence state policy.
They had used it.
"It matters," Jim Irving said, reminding me that Irving lands were green certified by two organizations, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council. A double dolphin-safe seal of approval.
"Is there anything else?"
When Moscone had punched the clock one minute late in the morning, his supervisor said, "No problem, just punch out a minute late at the end of the day."
"Nice guy. Real fair," Moscone said.
It was dark by the time his shift was over and he was heading south on Route 11, past Masardis, past Patten.
Laurie Moscone wasn't surprised that Verso was closing.
"We were sitting at the table on her day off when she said she thought they'd close. What, you mean layoffs, I said to her. They've done that, before."
Laurie shook her head.
Not this time.
Moscone retrained after getting laid off last winter, getting his certification in repairing natural gas and propane boilers so he could work on home heating systems. Laurie had kept up her certification to assist teaching physical education. Though where she could get a job, now, was anyone's guess. Certainly not in Millinocket. They were talking about closing schools.
Moscone made Sherman and eased on to I-95, heading south, picking up speed, cruising along at 75 on the home stretch.
"We've talked about selling the house, but the house is all paid for. Who's going to pay for it? Have you seen what houses are selling for in Millinocket?"
Twenty thousand dollars, some of them.
Now ReEnergy wants him to go to Livermore for training for several days while the wife is gone. Where is that, exactly? Near Augusta? And who will feed the pets?
He's close to Medway, when he sees a deer heading out of the dark straight for the pavement just as some joker passes so fast that Moscone can't guess at the speed, passes like a shot, leaving Moscone standing still. Flat out, like it was going to last forever. The deer doesn't bother to look.
"Oh, man," said Moscone. "This is going to be cute."