Paper industry: Verso completes acquisition of NewPage; Old Town workers return to work

Verso Paper Corp. on Wednesday announced it had completed its acquisition of larger rival NewPage Holdings in a deal worth $1.4 billion. The deal, which received federal approval Dec. 31, affects two Maine paper mills: Verso’s mill in Jay and the former NewPage mill in Rumford. Because of antitrust issues stemming from concerns that a merged company would control roughly 50 percent of the market for glossy paper in North America, the justice department required that the new Verso sell off the NewPage mill in Rumford. A deal to sell the Rumford mill, which employs roughly 700, to Canadian company Catalyst Paper Corp. was announced in October. The Verso mill in Jay, which employs roughly 850 people, will be unaffected. As part of the deal, Verso will change its name from Verso Paper Corp. to just Verso Corp., signifying the company’s plans to diversify beyond paper products to remain viable. In other mill news, Wisconsin company Expera Specialty Solutions recalled 180 laid-off workers from the former Old Town Fuel & Fiber mill and is expected to resume production later this month. Read the story

Transportation: Nova Star eyes second season despite controversies

The operators of Nova Star, the ferry that provides service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, have pledged that the service will return for a second year, despite an inaugural season fraught with delays and disappointing numbers. While negotiations continue with the Nova Scotia government over continued subsidies for the service, Canadian lawmakers are awaiting an audit of the company’s operations that many expect will be critical. In the meantime, charter bus companies are booking tours but the general public can’t buy tickets yet. The company has yet to schedule negotiations over its lease of space at the International Marine Terminal in Portland. Read the story

Bridge replacement spurs calls for stabilized funding

Work began on the replacement of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which spans the Piscataqua River between Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The launch of the $170 million project, expected to be finished in 2017, drew dignitaries such as Sen. Susan Collins, who on Tuesday became the chair of the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Gregory Nadeau, a Lewiston native now acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. Both used the occasion to call for more stable and predictable funding mechanisms for transportation projects at the federal level. Read the story

Economy: Anemic job growth expected through 2022

A dismal jobs forecast shows Maine employment rising by only 2.3 percent from 2012 to 2022 compared with national average projections of 11.3 percent. Maine Department of Labor analysts attribute the projection to an aging population compounded with few young people moving into the state. Registered nurses is the occupation expected to see the most sustained growth through 2022, a reflection of the 12.1 percent projected increase in health care and social service jobs, while the manufacturing and information industries are expected to take it on the chin, losing 8.7 percent and 9.8 percent of jobs respectively over the same span. Read the story

Colgan’s swan song: Embrace urban economy

Economist Charlie Colgan, professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, exhorted Mainers to give up their old preconceptions of Maine as a rural economy and tackle income inequality, population stagnation and the challenges of an aging workforce with gusto. In his 23rd and final annual economic forecast, Colgan said Maine has to find a way to pay wages that are competitive with other states and nations and to attract more people to move here. Colgan, a longtime member of the state’s economic forecasting committee, is retiring this spring and accepting a fellowship with a college in Monterey, California. Read the story

Finance: Crowdfunding rules create opportunity for entrepreneurs

A new law allowing entrepreneurs to accept equity or debt investments of up to $5,000 from individual investors hit the books this month. Maine companies are capped at receiving $1 million annually from these new crowdfunding options, but entrepreneurs welcome the potential for new revenue streams into their developing businesses. Read the story

Tourism: New chief takes tourism reins

The new head of the Maine Tourism Association, Chris Fogg, embraces multiple methods to get the message out that Maine remains a top tourist destination. He assumes the position after spending eight years at the helm of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce where he fielded plenty of humorous questions from out-of-state visitors. The association represents more than 1,600 businesses connected to the tourism and hospitality industry in Maine. Read the story

Energy: Agreement lays groundwork for new transmission line

An agreement between utility companies Central Maine Power and Emera Maine clears the way for a proposed wind farm in Aroostook County to send its power to the New England grid. Under the deal, the two utilities are providing EDP Renewables with an option to buy a portion of a transmission corridor to develop a new transmission line. EDPR is planning to build a wind power farm in Bridegwater with a capacity of 250 megawatts – enough power to serve 74,000 homes. Read the story

Technology: Bitcoin starts to appear at Portland area retailers

A handful of Maine businesses is accepting bitcoin as payment for goods and services. The alternative, online currency hasn’t generated many users, but Maine’s retailers are watching early adapters to see if it catches on, and whether there are advantages to using it. Read the story

Real estate and housing: Biddeford OK’s $50M hotel project

The Biddeford Planning Board gave unanimous approval to a $50 million project that will transform a prominent downtown mill building. Developer Tim Harrington is proposing to build the Lincoln Hotel and Lofts project in the Lincoln Mill. His plans for the former textile mill include 96 apartments, an 81-room hotel, a 150-seat restaurant and a 65-seat restaurant. Harrington, who has been involved with the development of nine hotels and seven restaurants in Kennebunkport, expects to break ground on the project this spring and finish by 2017. He estimates the project will create at least 200 permanent jobs. The Lincoln Hotel and Lofts and other planned projects in the mill district are being touted by city officials as evidence that the removal of a trash incinerator is spurring redevelopment in a downtown that has struggled since the once-bustling textile mills closed decades ago. Read the story

Inventory of city’s affordable housing pinched

Avesta Housing’s 2014 annual report shows the nonprofit housing agency was able to place only 11 percent of the requests it received for help finding affordable housing, an indication of a dearth of below-market apartments available in Portland. Likewise, Portland Housing Authority said it had been able to help half as many people in 2014 as it had in 2013 and 2012 who needed Section 8 vouchers to find eligible affordable housing. Housing advocates say increasing rents throughout the city and landlords who are opting to use short-term rentals via Craigslist and Airbnb are squeezing the availability of housing for lower-income people. Read the story