ENERGY

Natural gas company drops rates

Summit Natural Gas of Maine is dropping its rates by nearly 70 percent because of mild winter temperatures and declining natural gas prices nationally. The Public Utilities Commission on Monday approved Summit’s request to drop its rate per therm from 83 cents to 26 cents, a 68 percent decrease, according to a news release from the company.

The rate will be retroactive to March 1 and will stay in place until Oct. 1. In a statement, company spokesperson Lizzy Reinholt said the reduction was triggered by mild temperatures this winter and a 30 percent drop in natural gas rates nationally in the last six months. Read the story

HEALTH CARE

Health co-op’s financial woes continue

A year after becoming the only health insurance cooperative in the country to make money, Maine-based Community Health Options posted a $31 million loss in 2015 and is setting aside $43 million in reserves to cover potential losses in 2016. The magnitude of the loss for the Lewiston-based nonprofit became clear late last year and led to the decision to stop individual enrollments of new customers in December, weeks before the end of the enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act. Now the chief executive officer of Community Health said the insurer is setting aside millions to cover the possibility of big losses this year, and premiums are likely to go up. The cooperative will submit its rate proposal to state insurance regulators in mid-May and the premium request is still being developed. Premiums increased only about 0.5 percent in 2015. Read the story

MANUFACTURING

Investment firm buys local gear-maker

A Portland company that supplies gears primarily used in engine pumps – its parts are found in all new Harley-Davidson motorcycles – has been sold to a Connecticut investment firm. The terms of the sale of Nichols Portland, which was a division of Parker Hannifin Corp., weren’t disclosed. The new owner is Altus Capital Partners, along with investments from the management team of Nichols Portland. The company employs 373 people at its Congress Street plant, making it Portland’s sixth-largest private employer and one of a dwindling number of manufacturing firms in Maine. It makes gears for pumps in car, motorcycle and diesel engines, including oil, fuel and transmission fluid pumps. The gears are sold to the pump makers, and a majority end up in General Motors, Ford and Chrysler cars. No changes are planned for the Portland operation. Read the story

Bankrupt mill sold to industrial demolition company

The mill in East Millinocket, once one of Maine’s most prolific producers of paper, appears headed for the scrap heap. The mill, most recently operated by investment firms that failed to revive paper production, has been sold to a Florida company, North American Recovery Management. Records filed with the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds show the transaction was completed March 3. The documents were signed by Jason Inoff, chief financial officer of North American Recovery Management. Inoff’s LinkedIn profile shows the company was created in January to invest in properties with “obsolete assets requiring demolition,” and other environmental remediation. The mill was sold by Hackman Capital Acquisition, a Los Angeles investment firm that bought the plant in a bankruptcy auction for $5.4 million in December 2014. Read the story

GENERAL BUSINESS

Tech support center ramps up hiring

Savilinx, a technical and customer support center in Brunswick Landing, intends to triple its workforce to deal with a new contract. The company made an announcement Friday that it intends to hire 200 people for its Brunswick call center. The announcement follows similar news from Wayfair, a furniture and home goods customer support center, that it plans to hire 500 people for its operation just down the road from Savilinx. Wayfair declined to reveal any salary information, but Savilinx said base wages for the new hires are $16.50 per hour; current employees will be paid a $100 referral fee if a new hire stays one year. In 2014, customer service jobs in Maine had a median wage of $15.89 per hour. Read the story

Media company sells consumer events business

Portland-based Diversified Communications has sold its food and wine shows and fitness and health expos in Australia to two of its top executives. The executives, Matthew Pearce, the company’s international director, and Steve Malbourne, its finance director, stepped down to form a new company, Talk2 Media & Events, to buy the Australian shows. The workers who helped produce the events have been offered jobs with Talk2 Media & Events, Diversified said in announcing the transaction. Terms of the sale were not disclosed. The sale will allow Diversified’s Australian division to focus on trade shows, with Talk2 Media & Events’ focusing on consumer shows. Read the story

TRANSPORTATION

Jetport submits 20-year improvement plan

The Portland International Jetport would get new gates, more large airliners and a host of upgrades under a 20-year, $312 million master plan that envisions the airport accommodating nearly 40 percent more passengers than it currently handles. The plan outlines what the jetport should look like in 2036 after the improvements. A funding plan for the first project on that time line – a bigger apron to accommodate larger airliners already using the jetport’s gates – comes before the City Council on March 21. The $3.4 million apron expansion would be the first in a series of requests to position the jetport for anticipated growth. If all projects are approved, the jetport will expand from 10 gates to 12, improve amenities such as baggage claim and parking, enhance the safety of its cargo operations and increase its passenger capacity by 38 percent. In 2015, the jetport served 1.73 million passengers, a 3.7 percent increase over 2014. Read the story

AGRICULTURE

Warm spring could wreak havoc on maple production

Producers in the U.S. “Maple Belt” say a mild winter has allowed them to tap trees early, but the harvest could be down from last year due to the early onset of spring warmth.

Some producers in maple-rich states such as Maine and New York tapped trees as early as January, atypical in an industry when March is usually the money month. But they might have done so out of necessity: The arrival of consistently warm weather typically ends the maple season, because budding trees produce sap that makes for much less palatable syrup. Maine’s maple syrup season got started abnormally early this year, with sap buckets visible on trees around Valentine’s Day in the southern part of the state. But producers promise the state’s official sweetener will still be available when the annual statewide Maine Maple Sunday celebration arrives on Easter Sunday. Maine has the third-largest maple syrup industry in the country after Vermont and New York. Read the story