Business – Press Herald Sun, 26 Feb 2017 15:59:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New software for Maine court system has been blamed for keeping people in jail too long Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The company hired to bring Maine’s courts into the electronic age has had serious technology problems in other states, including complaints that its software glitches led to dozens of people being wrongly arrested or held in jail longer than their sentences.

Teon Wiley, a 34-year-old man from Memphis, Tennessee, said that was exactly what happened to him.

Wiley was arrested and jailed after a traffic stop last July for violating probation and failing to pay court costs for theft of household items from a Home Depot store in Tennessee. He was due to be released in mid-November, but his release date came and went – and he remained in jail.

Teon Wiley, a 34-year-old from Memphis, said he remained in jail longer than he should have after being arrested for violating probation and failing to pay court costs for theft. Memphis officials said they had problems with computer software used by Tyler Technologies to update court records. Photo courtesy of Teon Wiley

When he asked jail officials why he was still being held past his release date, he said he was told that they were having computer problems and he would “have to wait until the system comes back up” before they could let him go. He was finally released in late November, after serving two weeks longer than his sentence dictated.

That extra time in jail “was worse than the (original) four months,” Wiley said. “I was ready to go home and those two weeks were like a whole year.”

Wiley’s was not an isolated case. Dozens of defendants in at least three different states have been wrongly arrested or been held in jail longer than their sentences called for, and officials have blamed problems with Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey computer program, which manages cases and facilitates electronic court filings for court systems all over the country. It is the same program that will be installed in Maine courts over the next five years.

Lawsuits have been filed across the U.S. on behalf of those defendants, both against law enforcement agencies that use Odyssey, and against Tyler Technologies itself.

In California, the public defender for Alameda County cited dozens of defendants who were victims of computer problems after Odyssey was installed, including one who was held for 16 days after the computer system erroneously said he was to be held without bail. In another case, a sentence was improperly entered into the system and a defendant had to spend 20 extra days in jail. In yet another, a warrant that was supposed to be recalled was not, leading to the defendant being arrested erroneously.

In each case, the public defender blamed incomplete case files that had not been updated or had missing documents.

“Minute orders, filings and other documents are frequently missing from the paperless files,” according to a motion filed by Brendon Woods, the public defender in Alameda County, in November. “The calendars generated by the system are also persistently incomplete and … regularly conflict with the calendars produced by the sheriff, the public defender and the district attorney. This appears to be the result of both inputting errors and Odyssey’s inability to interface with other case management systems.”


Lawsuits in Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky cite similar issues involving hundreds of defendants, all complaining of problems with the Odyssey program.

Wiley, the Tennessee man, is now part of one of those lawsuits, a class-action lawsuit against the Shelby County sheriff’s office in Tennessee, on behalf of him and other inmates who faced the same situation. Another class-action suit in Shelby County names Tyler Technologies as a defendant.

Tyler’s niche is creating software for local governments, including the city of Portland, which just signed a contract with the company for an upgrade of the software it uses in City Hall.

The company is headquartered in Texas, although its chief executive officer lives in Maine and the company has more than 650 employees in Falmouth and Yarmouth and is expected to expand here in coming years. The Maine operations focus primarily on creating software for administering school districts, while the court software was developed in and is managed from Texas.

Late last year, Maine signed a $16.9 million, five-year contract with Tyler to provide electronic services to Maine courts. The project will enable all state courts to allow attorneys to file lawsuits and briefs electronically and the public will be able to track cases online, instead of having to search through paper records at individual clerks’ offices in each courthouse. Judges’ orders will also be entered electronically, and data such as bail terms and jail sentences will be stored online, so county officials know when prisoners are supposed to report and when they are to be released.

But that’s where officials in other states said Tyler’s software failed to perform. The lawsuits say erroneous records are filed in the computers or no information at all is entered until long delays have already developed.

The incidents vary, but most involve either incorrect information entered into the system or allegations that the system fails to stay up to date.

In Alameda County, California, the public defender’s office is asking the court to order officials to make changes to ensure that record-keeping is up to date. The proposed order cites more than two dozen cases in just over three months in which people have been held in jail too long, were arrested on warrants issued erroneously, remained on probation too long or had misdemeanor convictions listed incorrectly as felony convictions.

In a court filing, Woods, the public defender, said all the problems occurred since the Odyssey system went online last August.

In addition to the lawsuits in Tennessee, county officials have been sued in Indiana over similar allegations. The lawsuits generally target county officials, since they are responsible for making sure court and jail records are accurate and up to date. Only one Tennessee suit names Tyler.

Joshua Spickler, an attorney with Just City, a criminal justice reform advocacy group in Tennessee, said the courts and jails in Memphis operated well until Odyssey went online there in November.

“That’s when everything fell apart,” he said.


Wiley, the Memphis man who was held in jail two weeks longer than his sentence, said jail officials threatened to charge him with inciting a riot when he insisted that he be allowed to see a judge to be released. He said other inmates told him that they, too, were being held longer than they were supposed to be jailed.

Tales like Wiley’s “are the story, over and over,” Spickler said. “I still get calls weekly. They have not fixed it.”

Spickler said county officials point the finger at Odyssey, while Tyler officials blame antiquated government computers and electronic systems and a poorly run interface between the Tyler software on court computers and jail systems.

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John Marr, Tyler’s CEO and chairman, said the Odyssey system has been rolled out in 21 states, including 11 where it is used statewide, as it will be in Maine.

“They’re all successfully implemented,” he said, adding that problems other states are seeing are due largely to difficulties that localities have had in linking court and jail systems. Odyssey is only installed on court systems, he said, and doesn’t run the jail systems, even though they are often linked.

“We’re not at the root or cause” of those issues, he said. “We are not the jail system or the integrator between the jail and the court system. These are things that happen in our industry, although we certainly take them very seriously.”

Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch, said the committee that selected Tyler for the state project was aware that problems had been reported elsewhere. She also said state officials are going into the project with their eyes open and know that there will be some difficulties along the way, given the scope of the project.

“We have done our best to learn from the experiences, both good and bad, of other court systems,” she said. “I think it would be the height of either naiveté or arrogance, or both, to suggest we will be immune from hitting some bumps in the road as we implement an entirely new way of doing business. ”

She said that Maine may actually be better off going into the project now, after problems already surfaced elsewhere, because that may allow Maine and Tyler to anticipate any issues here and either head them off or know how to correct them using fixes developed elsewhere.

“We do believe we will benefit from the experiences of other courts, and those ‘problems’ are learning opportunities for us,” Lynch said. “Sometimes it helps to be at the back of the queue in implementing change. We are taking to heart the experiences of others.”


Tyler’s bid of $16.9 million fell in the middle of six that the state received to convert the courts to electronic filing. The low bid was $9.8 million from Journal Technology, and Thomson Reuters was at the top end, with a bid of $33.6 million.

Lynch said Tyler scored a few more points on the scoring scale used by the six-member selection committee because it already has operations in Maine, but she said the difference was minimal – only a maximum of 50 points on a 1,000-point scale. Lynch said she didn’t have the final scores of the committee, but the points for local operations did not tip the balance.

“I am told that Tyler won by such a large margin that this was not a determining factor,” she said.

She also said the state consulted with the National Center for State Courts on the project and also will benefit from having a unified court system, rather than a system of independently operated county or municipal courts that are sometimes used in other jurisdictions. That can result in systems with different computer backbones and inconsistent funding for the conversion to an electronic format, Lynch said.

Marr said Tyler will learn from issues encountered in other states to try to make Maine’s implementation smoother. And, Marr said, he’s taken a slightly stronger interest in the Maine project because he lives here – for instance, he sat in on the presentation his company made to the selection committee.

“I’m a Mainer, been here virtually my whole life,” he said. “To have an opportunity here in our home state, we’re excited to make Maine a showplace.”

]]> 0 Technologies is headquartered in Texas, although its chief executive officer, John Marr, lives in Maine and the company has more than 650 employees in Falmouth, above, and Yarmouth and <a href="">is expected to expand here in coming years</a>. Late last year, the state signed a $16.9 million, five-year contract with Tyler to provide electronic services to Maine courts.Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:14:12 +0000
Michelle Singletary: Their money is none of your business Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 When you are watching someone make a bad financial decision – and the person is intent on plowing ahead despite your warnings – sometimes all you can do is be a witness.

I’ve dealt with dozens of people and their financial issues, and I’ve learned that a lot of times your only option is to let them fail and, in some cases, suffer the consequences.

In a recent column, I addressed a question from a reader about her 30-year-old sister, who has moved into their parents’ house along with her boyfriend. The couple doesn’t pay rent, despite a request from the parents to do so.

“My mom’s main argument is that she doesn’t want to kick someone out in the cold,” the reader said.

In my advice to her, I said she was right to be concerned. But in the end, she can’t force her parents to see what she sees – a spoiled adult child taking advantage of her parents. I told her to just let it go. It’s the parents’ money to do with what they want, even if it’s to enable a grown woman and what the reader described as her trifling, unemployed boyfriend.

Well, some readers thought I let the parents off the hook. Others didn’t think I sympathized enough with the responsible sibling. I’m always open to hearing alternative viewpoints, which is why I created a feature I call “Talk Back.” It’s a chance for readers to share their opinions.

One person said I was too dismissive in suggesting that the responsible sister just accept that her parents have a right to do what they want with their money.

“I get that the parents’ money is theirs,” another reader wrote. “But what happens if the support for the sister spends down their assets and they need to ask the sibling for financial help in retirement? Unfortunately, far too few people have the savings to support themselves in retirement. Is it reasonable that the sibling then helps her parents without resentment?”

I assure you, I understand the point that the parents, in supporting one adult child more than another, can create tension between the siblings. It can lead to a hostile situation that may endure long after the parents are gone.

Many fights about inheritances stem from siblings who “did all the right things” feeling they were cheated because their parents unfairly supported irresponsible adult children.

But if you’re an adult child who is not being treated equitably – in your opinion – you do have a choice. You can get angry and, as a result, alienate yourself from your siblings and/or parents. You can decide whether you’ll live a life full of bitterness for money not spent on you.

Or you can take a more emotionally healthy approach that doesn’t negate your hurt feelings but that moves you on to a place of serenity.

Having watched my own mother, who left me to be raised by my grandmother, play favorites, I decided –after some very good therapy – to let the bad feelings go. I chose to forgive her – not for her but for me.

No matter how much my reader points out to her parents that they are being taken advantage of, they still elect to continue to enable her sister and the boyfriend.

If you have no power to control how your parents dole out their money in a situation where they are not physically or mentally ill, such as suffering from dementia, you have no choice but to stand by and let them do what they want. You have no choice but to watch them take care of a financially irresponsible adult child.

People have the free will to make bad financial decisions. (Being duped by an illegal scam is another story.)

Could the spending on the sister jeopardize the parents’ retirement safety net? Absolutely.

However, if the sister, who has warned her parents about enabling her sibling, wants her parents to suffer the consequences of their poor decision, she shouldn’t bail them out.

But if the responsible sister resolves to assist her parents if they need financial support, I would argue she should do so without resentment. This doesn’t mean she can’t be frustrated at having to make this difficult choice.

Yet she should be aware that, in coming to her parents’ rescue, she will be doing just what they did – not leaving a loved one out in the cold. And she will be rewarding their unwise financial decisions. Hopefully she’ll see the irony.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

Twitter: SingletaryM

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Week in review: Airbnb rentals double in 2016; Eimskip adds Portland stops Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION

Hathaway Center sold to affiliate of New York development firm

The historic Hathaway Creative Center on Water Street has been sold for about $20 million. The building was sold to North River Hathaway LLC by Hathaway Mill PO LLC, under an agreement that was signed Feb. 10 and announced Thursday. The former Waterville shirt factory was renovated several years ago and transformed into retail offices and 67 high-end apartments in an effort that helped jump-start downtown revitalization hopes. The building dates back to 1876, when it was operated as a cotton manufacturing mill. C.F. Hathaway & Co. was built in 1881 and made shirts at the building until 2003, when it closed. Paul Boghossian redeveloped the mill building for about $30 million. Read the story.

Home sales strong in January

Sales of existing single-family homes in Maine rose 7.9 percent in January from a year earlier thanks to low interest rates and low inventories. Real estate agents across the state assisted in the sale of 959 homes at a median price of $190,000, up 8.3 percent from a year earlier, according to a news release from the Maine Association of Realtors. For the three-month period ending Jan. 31, home sales statewide were up 12.6 percent from a year earlier, and the median sale price was up 6.5 percent to $189,000. The median price indicates that half of homes sold for more and half sold for less. Read the story.


Conrad to become top chamber exec in Lewiston-Auburn

A woman who spent decades advocating for the Lewiston-Auburn community has been named the new chief of that area’s chamber of commerce. Rebecca Swanson Conrad will start as the new president and chief executive officer of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on March 27, according to a release announcing the appointment. Conrad is currently the vice president for institutional advancement at Maine College of Art in Portland, where she has worked since 2006. She spent 21 years in higher education administration at Bates College, including 1999-2003 when she served as executive director of LA Excels, the college’s nonprofit community development partnership in Lewiston-Auburn that focused on leadership, arts, educational aspirations and economic revitalization. Her business experience includes 20 years as co-owner with her husband of Austin’s Fine Wines and Foods and three years as the owner of an Auburn gift store. Read the story.


Airbnb rentals double in 2016

Hosts using the Airbnb online home-sharing service earned $26 million and hosted about 174,000 visitors in Maine last year, according to data released by Airbnb Wednesday. The announcement comes as Gov. Paul LePage tries to amend the state’s tax rules to ensure that hosts on Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms are collecting the required lodging tax of 9 percent and forwarding it to the state. If all Airbnb hosts had paid that tax in 2016, the state would have collected about $2.3 million in tax revenue. According to Airbnb, a typical Maine host earned $5,900 in supplemental income last year, and a typical listing was occupied for 30 nights with an average length of stay of 2.7 nights. The number of visitors using Airbnb represents a 100 percent year-over-year increase, the company said. There were 3,700 active Airbnb hosts in the state in 2016, up from 2,100 in 2015. Read the story.


Doctors raise concerns over proposed board changes

Doctors at Pen Bay Medical Center are concerned that a proposal by parent corporation MaineHealth to create a single board of directors could result in a loss of local control and potentially cuts in services at the Rockport hospital. Those concerns were voiced in a Jan. 9 letter to employees by the president of the Pen Bay medical staff summarizing a Jan. 5 meeting of physicians. The Pen Bay letter follows a similar letter sent out in November by the physicians at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. MaineHealth has proposed creating a single board of trustees that would make decisions for all member hospitals and affiliated organizations, such as nursing homes and home health agencies. Currently, each member organization has a separate board. When Pen Bay Healthcare became a MaineHealth member in 2010, the agreement stipulated that no service offered locally could be discontinued unless initiated and approved by the local board. Pen Bay Healthcare and Waldo County — which became a MaineHealth member in 2009 — merged in 2015 into a single organization and board called Coastal Healthcare Alliance, which remains a member of MaineHealth. Read the story.


Maine considered for biorefinery

A Canadian company that turns leftover wood from forestry operations into heating fuel has begun supplying Bates College in Lewiston and is seeking enough customers to build a production facility in Maine. Ensyn Corp. is ramping up production of a proprietary biofuel it has made for more than 25 years at a small facility in Renfrew, Ontario. Now the company, along with private partners and the governments of Canada and Quebec, is building a $78 million plant at Port-Cartier, Quebec. The Cote Nord facility is designed to produce 10.5 million gallons of oil a year from trees when it comes on line later this year to supply customers in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. Sales are aimed at large institutions, such as universities, state buildings and hospitals, that want to reduce the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide they emit. Biorefineries can create new markets for sustainable forestry, reduce fossil fuel dependence and support hundreds of jobs in the woods, in trucking and for plant operations. Read the story.


Eimskip adds four more calls to Portland

Icelandic shipping company Eimskip will add four trips to Portland this year – a 13 percent increase in port calls over 2016 – continuing growth at Maine’s sole container terminal.

Eimskip has increased port calls to Portland from 26 in 2013 to 35 planned for this year. The increased visits are being driven by a 20 percent growth in shipping volume, said Larus Isfeld, managing director of Eimskip USA. Portland is the only U.S. port Eimskip ships to directly. The company’s goal is to have weekly calls to Portland by 2020 and it has been growing its shipping volume over time to meet that goal, he said. Weekly service is regarded as the minimum required to serve inventory management strategies used by many companies today. If weekly service can be established, it will make Portland a more attractive port for manufacturers and distributors with business interests in northern Europe. Read the story.


Credit union league appoints new chief

The incoming head of Maine’s trade group for credit unions said his top priority is to use advanced technology and data to save consumers money and help them make better financial decisions. The Maine Credit Union League and its for-profit data processing affiliate Synergent have chosen Todd Mason to replace outgoing President and CEO John Murphy, who plans to retire this summer. Mason is a credit union industry veteran from Michigan with executive experience in that state’s credit union trade organization.

Mason’s current job is chief strategy officer for RouteOne, an indirect automotive lending technology company based in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Before that, he worked for the Michigan Credit Union League and Affiliates for 19 years, serving in a variety of roles including vice president of technology, education and marketing, and chief operating officer of the league’s CU Solutions Group. Mason said the Maine league and Synergent seemed like a good fit because they share his desire to push credit union technology further without compromising the industry’s emphasis on personal interaction. He’s expected to start in late April. Read the story.

]]> 0 Elkins, left, and Kurt Parker lift a tray of boiling maple syrup off the fire pit at their sap house in Thorndike on Thursday. Maine syrup makers are getting an early start on the season as warm temperatures have caused sap to start running. At a recent Maple Producers Association meeting, about half the members said they'd already started tapping and making syrup, while the other half is gearing up to start soon. Last year, producers in southern Maine were tapping in January, the earliest many could remember doing so. (Staff photo by David Leaming)Sat, 25 Feb 2017 22:17:06 +0000
Maine lobstermen’s union votes to buy Hancock County lobster business Sun, 26 Feb 2017 00:04:56 +0000 The Maine Lobstering Union voted Saturday to buy a wholesale lobster business near Mount Desert Island to help its fishermen net a bigger share of the profit in the booming, $1.5 billion-a-year industry.

At a closed-door meeting in Rockport, members voted 63-1 to buy the wholesale side of the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, which includes a tank that can hold up to 180,000 pounds of lobster, for $4 million, said Local 207 President Rocky Alley.

“We can’t wait to start buying and selling our own lobsters,” Alley said. “Right now, fishermen sell at the dock, and we get what we get, with no control. But there is lots of money made off lobsters after they leave the dock, and some ought to stay with us fishermen.”

The vote enables the Maine union to borrow money from a Kansas City bank and to borrow $1.1 million from fellow locals in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as far south as Maryland to purchase the Lamoine-based wholesale business.

Rocky Alley of Jonesport listens to Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher during a 2014 meeting about the state of the lobster industry. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

The Trenton Bridge manager, Warren Pettegrow, will stay on as the chief executive officer of wholesale operations, as will the employees. The operation will continue to ship live lobsters nationally and abroad, including to the European Union and Asia.

Pettegrow said he wasn’t looking to sell Trenton Bridge, a pound that’s been in his family for four generations. When he started talking to the union about two years ago, Pettegrow said it was “all about how to help better the lobstermen’s position in the industry.”

“This really is all about putting lobstermen in the best position to secure their future and their way of life for future generations,” said Pettegrow, who operates a boat that transports lobsters and has been buying MDI lobsters for years.

Eventually, the lobstering union expects to buy Pettegrow out, officials say, but he will still be owner of the family’s well-known retail operation on Route 3 in Trenton, located just over the bridge on the drive to Mount Desert Island.

When the purchase is finalized, union lobstermen from Jonesport, Mount Desert Island and Vinalhaven can sell their lobsters directly to the union cooperative, which was established in 2013, for storage at the Lamoine facility and eventual sale.

Union fishermen who sell to the co-op will get market price for their lobster, but they will also receive a share of cooperative profits, or a dividend, at the end of the year once operational costs, like trucking and employees, are covered.

In time, the union hopes to expand its buying territory to the whole Maine coast.

Reached after the vote, Alley said he wanted to thank IAM president Robert Martinez and the executive board for believing in the lobster fishermen of the state of Maine. “This has been a dream of ours for two years, and we couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.

The Maine Lobstering Union formed in 2013 in the wake of an infamous 2012 spring glut that drove boat prices to a season average $2.69 per pound, down from about $4 per pound during recent years and the lowest yearly average in 20 years.

The union has lobbied the Maine Legislature on behalf of its members, and has raised some objections to local projects that would affect their members – such as dredging in Searsport and in Casco Bay – but it has long wanted to launch a statewide cooperative.

Lobstermen often complain about the large gap between the boat price for lobster and what a consumer pays to eat a lobster, even in a Maine restaurant. They don’t understand why rising consumer prices don’t always translate into higher boat prices.

“Now we’ll be able to track how the price system works, and we’ll be able to get a piece of the back end,” Alley said. “It will be huge. This is going to change the lobster industry in Maine. It was our goal from the first day we unionized.”

The union has about 500 members who have been active at some time since its launch, but not everyone pays the $62.70-a-month union dues on time. That is why the vote tally on Saturday was so low, union organizers said.

There had not been a fishing union in Maine in more than 75 years, when efforts to revive an earlier union ran afoul of federal price-fixing laws. But IAM lawyers found a loophole in a 1934 fishing law that allows a union to negotiate prices on behalf of fishermen.

Canadian fishermen have been organized for decades, but most don’t negotiate catch prices. Deep-sea fishermen that work on halibut, sablefish and crab boats off Washington and Alaska have union representation, too.

David Sullivan, the head of IAM’s eastern territory, applauded the results of Saturday’s vote.

“The members of the Machinists Union are proud to stand beside the lobstermen of the state of Maine as they fight to preserve their communities and their way of life,” Sullivan said.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

]]> 0 American lobsters, also known as Maine lobsters, crowd a food bin at the Burger & Lobster restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden. Chef Anders Westerholm says the imported crustaceans are highly prized at European restaurants and advocates against an all-out ban.Sat, 25 Feb 2017 22:00:24 +0000
Warren Buffett upbeat in annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders Sat, 25 Feb 2017 23:53:19 +0000 OMAHA, Neb. — Billionaire investor Warren Buffett reiterated his rosy long-term outlook for the U.S. economy and his distaste for high Wall Street fees in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that always draws a big audience.

The letter released Saturday also describes the performance of the more than 90 companies that Berkshire owns.

But aside from that, Buffett largely emphasized points he’s made in the past.

Buffett will likely address other topics during a three-hour television appearance Monday on CNBC, but he still may leave some people wanting more.

While reaffirming his long-term outlook for a prosperous America, Buffett mostly steered clear of politics.

“I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history,” wrote Buffett, who has said he thinks the economy will be OK under President Trump. Buffett is a longtime Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in last year’s campaign.

Without mentioning Trump’s immigration policies, Buffett did note that “a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants” played a significant role in the country’s prosperity.

Buffett used the letter to again explain the advantages of low-cost index funds. He said he estimates that wealthy investors who use high-priced advisers have wasted more than $100 billion over the past decade.

“The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients,” Buffett wrote. “Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.”

And it can be extremely difficult for investors to determine whether a money manager has the rare ability to outperform the stock market. So Buffett said most investors are better off not trying.

]]> 0 Sat, 25 Feb 2017 19:04:26 +0000
Maine banks foreclosed on fewer homes in 2016 Sat, 25 Feb 2017 17:44:09 +0000 AUGUSTA – Foreclosure filings launched by state-chartered banks are continuing to drop below recession-era levels.

Maine’s financial institutions began reporting a noticeable increase in foreclosure filings in 2008.

A recent state report found Maine’s state-chartered banks and credit unions held 74,000 first-lien mortgages at the end of 2016. Of those, 183 were in the process of foreclosure.

That’s the lowest level in eight years.

The state Bureau of Financial Institutions says it’s been surveying the 31 state-chartered banks and credit unions about foreclosure activity since 2006. That doesn’t include federally-chartered banks and credit unions and licensed mortgage companies.

The number of completed foreclosures actually increased in 2016. But the state bureau said it’s not concerning and may have been a result of earlier confusion about the foreclosure activity process that caused delays.

]]> 0 Sat, 25 Feb 2017 12:44:09 +0000
With sap flowing early, it’s ‘full steam ahead’ for Maine’s maple syrup makers Sat, 25 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Working among rain showers in the morning and a warming sun in the afternoon, Michael Bryant spent most of Friday collecting sap from his free-flowing maple trees.

With 1,200 taps, he and his brother Mark, who own Hilltop Boilers in the York County town of Newfield, spend the daylight hours collecting sap and work through the night into early morning boiling it for syrup.

He’s confident that Maine maple producers are in for a good spring.

“The sap is running like it should be,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. It’s looking very nice.”

The story is much the same around Maine, where farmers have been tapping trees just a bit early this year. A mild spring means long workdays in the snow-covered woods for the men and women who collect the sap and turn it into liquid candy. These are critical days and weeks, because the window for making maple syrup closes quickly. Warm days and cool nights create ideal conditions – and a sense of urgency with temperatures touching 60 in some parts of York County on Friday.

Lyle Merrifield of Gorham, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said he expects a better-than-average season in yield and quality, if the weather conditions remain favorable statewide.

“Everything is in line for a very good season right now,” he said. “The sap is really taking off in the southern part of the state, and it’s started in central Maine as well. As far as I can assess it right now, the sap flows are good and sugar content is good.”

Bryant has been boiling sap for a few days, which is a little earlier than usual, but only by a few days. “The end of February or the first week of March is fairly common. The average start day is the last day of February over 30 years. So I’d say we’re right on schedule, or just a little ahead. I’m just amazed how much snow we got in two weeks and how fast it melted in the woods,” he said.

The fast-melting snow made his job easier, because he didn’t have to use snowshoes to get to each of his 1,200 taps.

Nate St. Saviour of Sap Hound Maple Co. in Brownfield, vice president of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association, said he got off to an unusually early start this season. He started installing 1,400 taps on Jan. 20 and has already made about 100 gallons of the 700 gallons of maple syrup he hopes to produce this year.

“We’re running full steam ahead. Any time you’re doing anything in January, that’s considered early,” he said. “The middle of February is when people get ramped up.”

At an association meeting last week, about half of the members said they already started tapping and making syrup, while the other half planned to begin soon, St. Saviour said. Traditionally, producers didn’t start boiling syrup until March, but in recent years early thaws have created ideal conditions for a sap run in January and February. Last year, producers in southern Maine were tapping in January, the earliest many could remember doing so.

“Years ago, we were all driven by the calendar,” Merrifield said. “Even if we had warm days in January, we wouldn’t think of tapping trees (this early). But that’s all changed now.”

Perfect conditions for a sap run occur when temperatures drop into the 20s at night, then rise into the 40s during the day. St. Saviour said a heavy snow pack in some parts of the state likely will contribute to a long season because it keeps the ground cold and prevents trees from budding early.

“All indications are it’s going to be a good season,” St. Saviour said. “You never know until it’s all said and done.”

Frank Boucher of Giles Family Farm in Alfred said he started tapping trees Tuesday, which is about the time he starts every year. The farm will install about 3,000 taps and would like to produce around 1,000 gallons of syrup. But, he said, that all depends on the weather.

“These 40-degree days are nice. It’s the 60s that mess us up, because it gets too warm too quick,” he said. “It’s all up to Mother Nature.”

Trees store starch in their trunks during the freeze of winter. The starch changes to sugar, which rises in the sap as the winter days warm. After collecting the sap – some farmers use buckets, others collect it in tubes and pipes – processors boil it to evaporate the water. What’s left is the syrup, which is perfect on blueberry pancakes and French toast.

The frantic dance among the trees will continue as long as the sap flows, culminating with Maine Maple Sunday, a statewide celebration of all things maple, when processors opens up their operations to the public. This year’s event is March 26, although many farms create weekend-long events.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

Twitter: grahamgillian

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0, ME - FEBRUARY 24: Bruce Bryant watched as freshly made syrup drains from a tap in the sugar shack. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer)Sat, 25 Feb 2017 11:24:42 +0000
Chinese company buys a stake in film studio Sat, 25 Feb 2017 01:44:22 +0000 HONG KONG — China’s footprint in Hollywood is expanding following a wire and cable maker’s purchase of a controlling stake in independent studio Millennium Films, which produced “Rambo” and “The Expendables.”

Recon Holding said Thursday it is taking a 51 percent stake in Millennium for $100 million.

The company, based in Yixing near Shanghai, is controlled by Tony Xia, who was a little-known businessman until last year, when he bought struggling English soccer club Aston Villa with ambitious plans to turn it around.

The terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter, give Recon majority ownership of Millennium and its library of 300 films.

The studio is known for its action titles, which include 2008’s “Rambo,” the fourth installment of the Sylvester Stallone action franchise, “The Expendables” series, and “London Has Fallen.”

Chinese investors and Hollywood studios have been in a frenzy of deal-making in recent years as both sides seek to expand in each other’s movie industries.

Chinese companies are hoping to gain filmmaking expertise as well as beef up the country’s global cultural influence, also known as “soft power.” Hollywood, meanwhile, covets China’s strong box office revenue growth as domestic earnings stagnate.

In the past year, Chinese companies have sealed deals with entertainment companies including Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Amblin Partners and Dick Cook Studios.

Xia owns Recon Holding through his conglomerate Recon Group. One of its companies, Lotus Health Group, is the world’s second biggest maker of food additive monosodium glutamate. Another subsidiary makes digital hardware for urban infrastructure.

Xia’s made a splash with his $87 million purchase of Aston Villa because the businessman, who studied at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had no soccer credentials.

]]> 0 Holding CEO Tony Xia says his company has acquired a 51 percent stake in Millennium Films for $100 million. Chinese companies are hoping to beef up the country's global cultural influence, or "soft power."Sat, 25 Feb 2017 00:34:40 +0000
VW makes $5.4 billion profit in 2016, limits executive pay Sat, 25 Feb 2017 01:43:53 +0000 BERLIN — Volkswagen bounced back into the black in 2016 after suffering a loss the previous year due to the diesel emissions scandal, according to figures released by the German automaker Friday.

The company reported a net profit attributable to Volkswagen AG shareholders of 5.1 billion euros, or $5.4 billion, last year compared with a net loss of almost 1.6 billion euros in 2015.

Volkswagen acknowledged in September 2015 that it had been installing engine control software in diesel vehicles to detect when cars were being tested. The software turned the emission controls off during normal driving to improve performance, but also resulted in releasing emissions more than 40 times the U.S. limit for the pollutant nitrogen oxide.

The Wolfsburg-based company paid a heavy price for its deceit, agreeing to shoulder more than $16 billion in buybacks and compensations to owners of VW cars in the U.S. alone. Lawsuits and legal investigations in several other countries are also ongoing.

CEO Matthias Mueller suggested the company had turned a corner.

“While the past fiscal year posed major challenges for us, despite the crisis, the group’s operating business gave its best-ever performance,” Mueller said. VW group sales rose 4 billion euros to 217.3 billion euros in 2016.

The company said it expects moderate growth in 2017 despite challenges from uncertain global economic conditions, intense competition, volatile currency rates and “the consequences of the diesel issue.”

Separately, Volkswagen announced a clampdown on executive bonuses, an issue that has aroused political passions in Germany during an election year. The company said annual pay for its CEO will in future be capped at 10 million euros, or $10.6 million, while other executive board members will receive a maximum of 5.5 million euros, or $5.8 million, in one year.

Former VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn, who stepped down in the wake of the diesel scandal, had earned 17.5 million euros in 2011, thanks to large bonus payments.

The new limits could reduce VW’s maximum outlay on executive pay by up to 40 percent, the company said.

]]> 0 the diesel emissions scandal, Volkswagen's "operating business gave its best-ever performance" last year, said VW's CEO Matthias Mueller on Friday.Fri, 24 Feb 2017 22:02:52 +0000
Climb in sales of new homes signals housing market health Sat, 25 Feb 2017 01:42:04 +0000 WASHINGTON — Americans bought more new homes in January after a steep falloff the previous month, a sign the housing market is healthy despite higher mortgage rates.

New home sales rose 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted 555,000, the Commerce Department said Friday. That is 5.5 percent higher than a year ago.

Solid job gains and some signs of rising wages have driven up consumer confidence, which has also risen since the presidential election. More confident consumers are more likely to buy homes. Sales of existing homes jumped to their highest level in a decade, according to data released earlier this week.

The solid sales have occurred despite, or perhaps because of, a jump in mortgage rates since the fall. Many buyers could be accelerating purchases to get ahead of any further rate increases.

Financial markets expect faster growth and higher inflation will flow from President Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation initiatives. That has pushed up interest rates on both the 10-year Treasury note and mortgages.

The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.16 percent this week, little changed from the previous week. Still, that is up sharply from an average of 3.65 percent all last year.

]]> 0 Fri, 24 Feb 2017 22:29:23 +0000
Here is what’s replacing Joe’s Boathouse in South Portland Sat, 25 Feb 2017 00:19:59 +0000 The new restaurant going into Spring Point Marina in South Portland, former home of Joe’s Boathouse, will be called 43North and will open in late May or early June, according to one of the partners developing the business.

Laura Argitis, owner of the Old Port Sea Grill, said the dockside, two-level 43North is named after the location’s latitude. The chef will be Stephanie Brown, who is now executive chef at the Woodlands Club in Falmouth. Brown previously owned Sea Grass Bistro, a small restaurant in Yarmouth that is now closed.

Argitis said Brown’s menu will change often and focus on American cuisine with French and Italian influences. Seafood will be a fixture on the menu.

Argitis is partnering with the owner of Port Harbor Marine, which operates Spring Point Marina, to develop the new restaurant, next to the Breakwater condominiums.

Joe’s Boathouse closed in late 2015 after 23 years in business, and the 35-year-old, one story building that housed it has been torn down.

]]> 0 Sat, 25 Feb 2017 08:43:59 +0000
A Trump Tower opens in Vancouver but the welcome isn’t warm Fri, 24 Feb 2017 17:59:28 +0000 VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The furies unleashed by Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency are shaking Vancouver, where a gleaming new Trump International Hotel and Tower is about to open.

The mayor wants its name changed. A city councilman calls it “over the top, glitz and glamor” that clashes with Canadian values. And the property developer who built it sounds traumatized by the whole affair.

The 69-story building designed by one of Canada’s most renowned architects has drawn praise for its sleek, twisting design. Prices for the condominiums have set records.

But Trump’s politics, especially his criticism of immigrants, has caused such outrage that the mayor won’t attend the grand opening next week. Even the Malaysian developer has had second thoughts about the partnership.

Joo Kim Tiah, who like the U.S. president is the son of a prominent businessman who got into global real estate, said he found it “extremely stressful” when Trump’s statements about Muslims, Mexicans and women, among other things, made him extremely unpopular in Vancouver, one of the world’s most diverse and progressive cities. Unfortunately, it was well after he signed the licensing deal to use the Trump brand.

“I was terrified,” Joo Kim of Holborn Development told The Associated Press. “The people who ran the city were not happy with me. I was scared, but I think they understand. They understand that I’m trapped into – not trapped, locked into – an agreement.”

The developer said he would have had no legal grounds to back out of the licensing deal, the terms of which have not been publicly released. “There would be severe legal implications,” he said.

The hotel and residence will have its grand opening on Tuesday, with Trump sons Donald Jr. and Eric in attendance.

Located along an upscale six-lane downtown thoroughfare, the tower is the second-tallest in Vancouver and offers majestic mountain and ocean views. A one-bedroom apartment, at 699 square feet, starts around $1 million and the average 1,153-square-foot two-bedroom condo went for $1.7 million but has since gone up. Hotel rooms in the slow season start at around $228 ($300 Canadian).

The chief White House ethics lawyers under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have criticized Trump’s turning over control of his business to his sons, saying it does not eliminate potential conflicts of interest. Legal experts also say Trump’s overseas businesses could violate the “emoluments clause” of the U.S. constitution, which bars public officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments or companies they control without the consent of Congress. A liberal-funded watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against Trump citing the clause.


The website for Trump’s Vancouver tower displays a series of decadent images.

The Vancouver tower is the second Trump-branded property to officially open since he took office, coming shortly after a golf course in Dubai. The Canadian project has generated much more debate, however, because of its location in a place that prides itself on multiculturalism. Forty-eight percent of Vancouver’s residents are foreign born.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, among others, has urged the developer to drop the Trump name. “Trump’s name and brand have no more place on Vancouver’s skyline than his ignorant ideas have in the modern world,” he said in a letter.

City councilman Kerry Jang said the tower, which he calls a “beacon of racism … intolerance, sexism and bullying,” is out of place not just because of the views of the person whose name adorns it but for a style that he said clashes with low-key Canada. “It represents a brand that’s over the top, glitz and glamor,” Jang said. “It’s not our thing. ”

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark also said the Trump name doesn’t represent the values of a city that is known for its support of environmental causes and open drug policies.

Donald Trump Jr. brushed off his father’s Vancouver detractors in an interview with CTV television last year, calling them “ridiculous” and “disgusting.” On Thursday, White House aide Hope Hicks directed all questions about the tower to the Trump Organization, which did not respond to requests for comment from the AP.

Joo Kim said he was saddened by the criticism, noting that people of 30 different ethnicities work at the hotel.

Silver and gold ingots of chocolate stamped “TRUMP” are displayed in hotel room minibars, part of the sumptuous decor in the $275 million ($360 million Canadian) tower.

Building general manager Philipp Posch said Trump and his controversies have little to do with the company. “President Trump, what he does is separate,” said Posch, who also opened Trump’s Chicago hotel. “I focus on getting the beds ready and putting a chocolate on your pillow for turndown.”

Ten percent of the condo owners are foreigners, more than double the average in Vancouver. Joo Kim said a few owners called during the campaign concerned that Trump’s remarks would hurt their property values, but no one has sold. Still, he understands why people are upset. “I did a lot of soul searching because people were attacking me for it,” he said.

Joo Kim’s father, Tony Tiah Thee Kian, is one of Malaysia’s richest men, and built his fortune trading stocks in the 1990s before expanding into property. He was charged in 1999 with abetting a businessman to defraud another brokerage, Omega Securities. In 2002, he was convicted on a reduced charge of providing a false report to the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange and resigned as head of his financial firm, TA Enterprise.

The father, who plans to attend the Vancouver tower opening, made a comeback in 2009 with the listing of his property arm, TA Global. Tiah groomed his eldest son as his successor, and 37-year-old Joo Kim was appointed CEO of TA Global last year. He also heads the family-owned Holborn Group, which says it earned $10.4 million from the Vancouver Trump project in 2015, representing 57 percent of its profit.

Joo Kim says he chose the Trump brand in part because he felt a bond with Donald Jr. “We’re both the oldest son and our fathers were really dominant and difficult at times,” he said. “We may be OK financially but we didn’t get the attention of our parents because our parents were always busy working. But at the same time there’s a big expectation to be perfect.”

Joo Kim has a picture on Instagram of himself at Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, along with a picture of his ticket for the Liberty Ball, one of three balls the president attended.

A protest is planned for the Vancouver hotel’s opening on Tuesday, but the city police department says there haven’t been any special requests for security.

The neighborhood where the tower is located seems split on its presence. Businesses on the block don’t see a threat from the presence of the Trump name or possible protests. The general manager of the Equinox sport club, Zak Miller, said he hasn’t seen any negative impact.

The reactions of many passers-by are the opposite.

Vancouver resident Jim Smith wondered why anyone would go inside. “It’s bad enough just to walk in front,” he said.

Daniela DeSanto, another city resident, said the building ruins Vancouver’s reputation.

“I’m so against it,” she said. “I think we should represent the city in better ways than his actions and his way of thinking.”


Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

]]> 0, 24 Feb 2017 18:53:04 +0000
J.C. Penney to close up to 140 stores Fri, 24 Feb 2017 14:17:54 +0000 NEW YORK — J.C. Penney is joining its department store rivals in pruning its store numbers in an era of online shopping.

Penney said Friday that it will close 130 to 140 stores as well as two distribution centers over the next several months as it tries to improve profitability. The company said that it would also initiate a voluntary early retirement program for about 6,000 eligible employees.

The news came as Penney posted a profit for the fourth quarter, compared to a loss a year ago. But total sales were down slightly, and a key revenue metric declined a bit as well. The company issued a conservative annual forecast, sending shares down 9 percent Friday.

CEO Marvin Ellison acknowledged that Penney wasn’t strategic with promotions, which hurt profit margins, and said that its level of couponing was “unhealthy.” It plans to use a more data-driven approach to pricing this year after testing the strategy in some categories last year.

The retail chain has six locations in Maine: South Portland, Auburn, Waterville, Rockland, Bangor and Presque Isle.

Representatives at the store in South Portland and with Maine Mall management declined to comment and referred media inquiries to J.C. Penney corporate offices.

The company is due to disclose in mid-March which locations it will shut down. J.C. Penney said the affected stores account for less than 5 percent of total sales, and it expects the closures will result in $200 million of annual cost savings.

Like other department stores, J.C. Penney is trying to adjust to changing shopping patterns. But it is also still recovering from a catastrophic reinvention plan under a former CEO that sent sales and profits freefalling starting in 2012.

Since then, it has focused efforts on its home area, started selling major appliances again and expanded its number of in-store Sephora beauty shops.

While its annual sales still shrank, what’s encouraging is Penney’s profit picture.

Penney pulled in a $1 million profit for the full fiscal year, the first time it earned an annual profit since 2010. The stores it is closing represent about 13 percent to 14 percent of its current store count of about 1,000.

“With a slimmed-down store portfolio, (J.C. Penney) will be able to focus on making its remaining stores more of a destination,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “This is essential, as while progress has been made on categories like home, other departments still require attention.”

Penney nonetheless still managed to outperform some of its rivals.

Kohl’s Corp. reported a drop in fiscal fourth-quarter profit as total sales declined. Revenue at stores opened at least a year dropped 2.2 percent.

Nordstrom Inc. reported a better-than-expected quarterly profit with help from strong sales online and at Nordstrom Rack. But at the Nordstrom brand, comparable store sales decreased 2.7 percent.

Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store chain, says its earnings for the quarter that includes the holiday period dropped nearly 13 percent, hurt by lower sales, store closures and other costs.

Penney shares fell 9 percent, or 62 cents, to $6.24 on Friday.

]]> 0, 24 Feb 2017 20:41:55 +0000
On U.S. stock markets, a mixed day amid dip in optimism Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:52:18 +0000 NEW YORK — Stocks wobbled Thursday as investors changed course and tempered their expectations for faster economic growth. Industrial companies, which have surged over the past few months, finished lower as Wall Street focused on gold, bonds and companies that pay big dividends.

Construction equipment, transportation and metals companies skidded, and small-company stocks, which are more sensitive to changes in economic growth, also slumped. Technology companies fell for the first time in February. The biggest gains went to utilities, real estate investment trusts, and other companies that pay hefty dividends.

Despite all that, the Dow Jones industrial average, which tracks 30 large U.S. stocks, rose for the 10th day in a row.

Industrial companies have made big gains since November as investors expect the Trump administration and Republican Congress to ramp up spending on infrastructure. That optimism faded a bit Thursday.

Jeff Kravetz, regional investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, said it might take a while before any bills are introduced or become law.

The Dow added 34.72 points, or 0.2 percent, to 20,810.32. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.99 points to 2,363.81. The Nasdaq composite lost 25.12 points, or 0.4 percent, to 5,835.51. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks slid 9.23 points, or 0.7 percent, to 1,394.62.

Industrial companies declined for the second day in a row, and took some of their biggest losses since the presidential election. Construction equipment maker Caterpillar gave up $2.65, or 2.7 percent, to $95.55, its biggest loss since September. United Rentals shed $7.16, or 5.6 percent, to $120.90.

The price of copper fell 3.3 percent to $2.64 a pound, its biggest one-day decline in more than a year. Copper is used in numerous construction projects, so its price has jumped recently. Companies that make basic materials also fell, and U.S. Steel lost $3.18, or 7.9 percent, to $37.31.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.37 percent from 2.42 percent.

That helped companies that pay big dividends, like utilities, real estate investment trusts and phone companies. Electricity company FirstEnergy picked up 60 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $31.39. Realty Income, which owns properties used by retailers like drugstores and discount stores, gained $1.72, or 2.8 percent, to $62.86.

In another sign that investors were seeking some refuge, gold jumped $18.10, or 1.5 percent, to $1,251.40 an ounce and silver rose 17 cents to $18.12 an ounce.

L Brands, the owner of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, tumbled after it said February sales have been weak, especially at Victoria’s Secret. The company decided to stop selling swimwear last year and said sales at older stores have dropped sharply. The stock gave up $9.19, or 15.8 percent, to $48.94.

Food conglomerate Hormel skidded after it said low turkey prices hurt its profit and sales in the first quarter, and Hormel cut its annual profit estimate because it expects those prices to remain weak. The stock fell $2.01, or 5.4 percent, to $35.29.

HP Inc. blew past analyst estimates in the fourth quarter thanks to a 10 percent jump in revenue from personal computers. The company said Notebook sales surged, which made up for lower printer revenue and flat desktop sales. The stock added $1.40, or 8.6 percent, to $17.60.

That wasn’t enough to keep the recent technology rally going, but Kravetz, of U.S. Bank, said technology stocks should continue to do well because their earnings are improving and both consumers and businesses are feeling more comfortable spending. Tech stocks are at their highest levels since the dot-com boom.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil futures rebounded, rising 86 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $54.45 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the standard for pricing international oils, rose 61 cents to $56.58 a barrel in London.

In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline gained 2 cents to $1.53 a gallon. Heating oil rose 3 cents to $1.66 a gallon. Natural gas picked up 3 cents to $2.62 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Boston Scientific sank after it said it will take all of its Lotus Valve devices off the market and from clinical testing sites because of a manufacturing problem. The device is intended to replace damaged or defective aortic valves. Last year the company announced a similar problem with a related Lotus product.

Boston Scientific stock lost 73 cents, or 2.9 percent, to $24.43, and competitor Edwards Lifescience jumped $3.55, or 3.8 percent, to $95.76.

The dollar dipped to 112.75 yen from 113.12 yen. The euro inched up to $1.0574 from $1.0568.

Britain’s FTSE 100 index and Germany’s DAX both declined 0.4 percent, and the French CAC 40 slid 0.1 percent. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 lost less than 0.1 percent and the Kospi of South Korea finished 0.1 percent higher. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.4 percent.

]]> 0 Thu, 23 Feb 2017 19:52:18 +0000
Company towns on the skids in parts of U.S. Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:31:27 +0000 PEORIA, Ill. — Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis planned to open this year’s State of the City speech by thanking Caterpillar Inc. for its longtime commitment to the central Illinois town, declaring, “We wouldn’t be Peoria without Caterpillar.”

It’s been that way for decades in Peoria and in other company towns across the United States. A major employer provided generations of locals with jobs and gave the cities a central identity, while executives helped keep cultural institutions, Rotary clubs and higher-end housing markets healthy.

Now many of those midsize communities are looking for a new identity as more companies trade their longtime hometowns for major cities. The larger urban areas offer easier access to global markets and to the lifestyle that talented young workers want, with public transit, nightlife and trendy restaurants.

Caterpillar’s recent decision to move 300 top headquarters jobs to the Chicago area made Peoria the latest city with a vacuum to fill. In 2014, Decatur, Illinois, lost Archer Daniels Midland to Chicago after 40 years in the town. ConAgra Foods moved 1,000 jobs last year from Omaha to Chicago.

Some companies also are leaving suburban areas for downtowns, although the suburbs are still a popular choice. General Electric is moving its executives from a suburban campus in Fairfield, Connecticut, to downtown Boston, and McDonald’s Corp. said last year that it will relocate to downtown Chicago from a sprawling headquarters in suburban Oak Brook.

A study by the virtual think tank found the number of jobs located within 3 miles of the city center grew by nearly 2 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Center city jobs grew slightly faster than those in the periphery in one recent seven-year period, a reversal from much of the past several decades.

“I don’t know that I’d call it a trend yet but it certainly is becoming one,” said Tom Murphy, a former Pittsburgh mayor and senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “Maybe for the first time in history, rather than having people follow where jobs are … we’re beginning to see jobs following people instead.”

By a 2-to-1 margin, young college graduates are now choosing a place to live first, then finding a job, said Joe Cortright, director of For companies recruiting top talent, “the biggest competitive advantage is to be in the city,” he said.

The change is adding to the divide between urban and smaller communities in the U.S., especially in the Midwest, which is beset with sagging manufacturing industries.

“We joke … that there’s the great state of Chicago, and then there’s the rest of Illinois,” said Bishop Harold Dawson Jr., a lifelong Peoria resident and pastor of New Life Christian Church.

Like many locals, Dawson can rattle off a list of relatives whose livelihoods in Peoria have depended on Caterpillar. The company, known as CAT for short, established its first plant in Peoria in 1909 and employs more than 12,000 workers in the area, even after several layoffs.

The city of about 110,000 has been trying to breathe more life into its downtown and a scenic stretch along the Illinois River. But while new restaurants, coffee shops and apartments are opening, Ardis acknowledged few people would call the area “dynamic.” And parts of the city’s core are seeing growing poverty.

The headquarters move has been a blow to the city’s collective morale.

“There is emotion around” the decision, said Jeff Griffin, president of the Peoria Area Chamber. “Peoria is not unique in that tragedy across the country.”

Griffin said he and his counterpart in Omaha talked recently about the importance of diversifying the local economy – relying on small businesses rather than large corporations.

“Part of the big challenge is leadership needs to recognize the rules have changed,” Murphy said. “They need to think about how they build their cities and the amenities they offer, and be really clear about what their competitive advantages are today, not what they were 100 years ago.”

A city should perhaps think about spending on public transit rather than highways, he said.

Improving the atmosphere of downtown seems to be helping some midsize cities recoup from the loss of major businesses, urban experts say.

In Greenville, South Carolina, where the decline of the textile industry left a huge gap in the economy, leadership arranged to remove a four-lane bridge that obstructed the view of a scenic waterfall, and added trees and cafes and sidewalks. A downtown that was once “dead” is now “beautiful and hugely successful,” Murphy said. In addition to drawing tourists, the city has a booming advanced-manufacturing industry, anchored by companies such as BMW.

But other places, such as Decatur, are struggling to find a new identity. The city has the second-highest unemployment rate in Illinois, and Moody’s Analytics warns the lack of jobs could push the city back into recession.

Across the Midwest and Northeast in particular, a number of midsize cities are facing “big challenges,” Cortright said.

“What do we do with the Peorias?” he asked. “I don’t think we know what the answer to that is.”

Peoria has a growing health care industry and is home to other companies such as Maui Jim sunglasses and Bump Box, a monthly delivery of skin care and other products for pregnant women.

Ardis said the city just has to find more.

“We’re not just going to roll over and play dead,” he said.

]]> 0 Inc., based in Peoria, Ill., makes earth-moving equipment like these tractors on a lot in Clinton, Ill. The company's recent decision to move 300 top headquarters jobs to the Chicago area left Peoria with a vacuum to fill.Thu, 23 Feb 2017 19:31:27 +0000
Former tech CEO gets 30 months in prison after self-exile to avoid charges Thu, 23 Feb 2017 23:37:39 +0000 NEW YORK — A wealthy former CEO who dodged securities fraud charges by spending a decade in Africa with a $50 million nest egg was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in prison by a judge in New York City who blasted him as “foolish” for hatching his scheme and fleeing justice for so long.

The sentence for Jacob “Kobi” Alexander, an Israeli citizen and permanent U.S. resident, was the longest for any U.S. defendant convicted of manipulating stock options, though far less than the maximum 10-year term. Of his two co-defendants, one received time served and the other got one year.

Alexander, 64, is a former Israeli military officer who made his fortune at the helm of Comverse, a once-thriving voicemail software firm with offices in Woodbury, New York.

“I really don’t understand how someone as brilliant and accomplished and focused and respected as you could be so incredibly, abjectly foolish to make some of the decisions you made,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis said in federal court in Brooklyn.

The sentence was meant to send a message to other wealthy defendants that they “cannot buy a new life to escape justice,” the judge said.

In a muted voice, Alexander told the judge: “I have nobody to blame but myself for those bad decisions. I acted without honor.”

Alexander vanished in 2006 while his lawyers were negotiating a possible surrender in an investigation for backdating stock options.

Court papers alleged that from 1991 through 2005 he exercised options and sold stocks worth about $150 million, making a $138 million profit. Of that, about $6.4 million was generated by backdating options, the papers said.

In addition, the company awarded thousands of stock options to fictional employees and then transferred the awards to a secret slush fund under the name I.M. Fanton, which stood for “phantom.” The scheme allowed Alexander to award those options to real “favored employees” and to himself without board of directors approval, court papers said.

After Alexander went into hiding he transferred $50 million to Israel, fueling speculation he may have been hiding there, authorities said. He later turned up in the Republic of Namibia, where he was allowed to freely live with his family while fighting extradition.

Over the years, Alexander bought a home in Namibia and invested in local businesses. There were reports that he flew in hundreds of people for his son’s bar mitzvah and took up charitable causes in the capital city of Windhoek.

]]> 0, 23 Feb 2017 18:37:39 +0000
State accuses supplements seller of fraud, fleecing Americans for millions Thu, 23 Feb 2017 23:25:40 +0000 Better Health Nutritionals promised customers that its miracle supplements could quickly reduce joint pain, rebuild damaged cartilage and rejuvenate the mind.

But the products were marketed and sold through false promises, deceptive advertisements and phony experts, according to a consumer fraud lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court by the Maine Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission.

According to the AG’s office, six of the nine defendants named in the lawsuit have agreed to settle the case for a combined $500,000 – a fraction of the $6.5 million they reportedly made from the alleged scam.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said in a news release that the scheme misled consumers into thinking they were getting medically proven products to improve their memory and joint health. There’s no indication in the filing of how many consumers were allegedly defrauded.

“The defendants’ products appealed to vulnerable populations who had memory issues and pain and who were taken advantage of by fine print that was not fully disclosed,” Mills said. “Consumers also were misled about the true costs of the products and how they could get their money back. These products offered false promises based on false advertising. These companies fleeced Americans of millions of dollars.”

According to the release, six of the defendants – including a corporation that used a South Portland address – agreed to settlements that will result in over $500,000 in monetary judgments and injunctions that include “a 20-year ban on marketing or selling dietary supplements directly to consumers” for some of the defendants. The judgment was based on the settling defendants’ ability to pay, the release said.


According to the lawsuit, Better Health was the marketing name for a company called XXL Impressions LLC, owned by co-defendant Jeffrey Powlowsky, that was incorporated in Wyoming but used an address in South Portland as its primary business address. Other defendants named in the complaint include North Dakota-based J2 Response LLC and its owners Justin Bumann and Justin Steinle, Massachusetts-based Synergixx LLC and its owner Charlie Fusco, Illinois-based naturopathic physician Ronald Jahner, and Arizona resident Brazos Minshew, who appeared in Better Health advertisements as “brain scientist” Samuel Brant.

Starting in late 2010, the defendants “employed unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in the advertising, marketing, distribution and sale of two products called FlexiPrin and CogniPrin, the complaint says. The products were sold primarily through radio and print advertising in the U.S. and Canada, resulting in sales of more than $6.5 million, it says.

The complaint said FlexiPrin was advertised as a product to relieve joint pain and rebuild cartilage, and CogniPrin was supposed to “prevent, treat or mitigate cognitive decline.” Both products were sold for prices ranging from $32 to $65 for a bottle containing 60 tablets.

FlexiPrin was marketed in part through a 30-minute radio advertisement disguised as a “cutting-edge health and wellness news” program, according to the complaint. The interviewer and the “pain expert” featured in the program actually were defendants Fusco and Jahner, and the toll-free number given out during the program was to a call center owned by Fusco.

Jahner and Fusco never mentioned during the program that it was an advertisement, or that they were being paid a percentage of FlexiPrin sales revenue, the complaint says.


Print ads for FlexiPrin contained references to “multiple clinical studies” that found FlexiPrin “can improve joint comfort and flexibility in as little as two hours,” the complaint says. However, there were no such clinical studies. The defendants also trained their call center employees to repeat the claims about clinical studies, the complaint says.

CogniPrin was marketed through the same means, except with defendant Minshew playing the role of Samuel Brant, a “brain scientist” and “past director of the Neurological Treatment Center for Tiena Health,” it says.

The complaint alleges that XXL Impressions listed its headquarters as the South Portland address of its shipping vendor, Ship-Right Solutions, but Ship-Right’s owners said XXL Impressions was never actually located there.

Ship-Right’s address also was used as the mailing address for Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, another supplements maker that was sued by the Maine AG’s office in 2016 for $16 million. Ship-Right was not a named defendant in either lawsuit.

Ship-Right co-owners Drew Graham and Todd Flaherty said it is common for companies that ship products to place the address of their order-fulfillment provider on product labels, and that Ship-Right merely handled product shipments for XXL Impressions and Direct Alternatives.


Graham, Ship-Right’s president, said the company serves about 80 clients across a wide variety of product sectors, including Goodwill Industries and sauce-maker Schlotterbeck & Foss. Ship-Right stopped doing business with XXL Impressions in 2015, he said.

“We don’t own the products; we don’t advertise the products,” Graham said. “We never give anybody permission to use our address as their business address.”

The complaint against XXL Impressions mentions another Maine company, customer service provider Argo Marketing Group, but it is not listed as a defendant.

Argo Marketing CEO Jason Levesque said his company did have a contract with XXL from 2014 to 2015, but he said Argo did not do any sales or marketing work.

“We provided customer service support for people who already had ordered the product through other avenues, and we terminated the relationship in 2015,” Levesque said. “We took the step to terminate the relationship.”

Levesque declined to explain why Argo Marketing terminated the contract and said he was contractually prohibited from talking about the number of product complaints it received about FlexiPrin and CogniPrin. He said Argo Marketing cooperated fully with the AG’s office and FTC during their investigation.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 to clarify the relationship between Argo Marketing and XXL Impressions.

]]> 0 Fri, 24 Feb 2017 10:51:21 +0000
Historic Hathaway mill building in Waterville sold for $20 million Thu, 23 Feb 2017 17:57:51 +0000 WATERVILLE — The historic Hathaway Creative Center on Water Street has been sold for about $20 million.

The building was sold to North River Hathaway LLC by Hathaway Mill PO LLC, under an agreement that was signed Feb. 10 and announced Thursday.

Hathaway Mill PO LLC listed the mill for sale in August with Chris Paszyc and Joe Porta of CBRE|The Boulos Co., and North River was represented by Drew Sigfridson of CBRE|The Boulos Co. in Portland.

The former Waterville shirt factory was renovated several years ago and transformed into retail offices and 67 high-end apartments in an effort that helped jump-start downtown revitalization hopes.

Paszyc, the listing broker, said the agreement reinforces the belief in the future of downtown Waterville.

“I think this is indicative of what is to come in downtown Waterville,” said Paszyc, who was town manager in nearby Madison 15 years ago. “This is building on Colby’s recent investments, plus the Alfond Foundation’s investments and a variety of other developers and investors embarking on projects in the downtown and indicative of what is to come in the future.”

Paszyc, of Farmingdale, also spent five years as director of planning and development for the city of Gardiner.

The property was listed on as a five-story, 236,000-square-foot mill building at 10 Water St. that in September was 83 percent leased.

The building dates back to 1876, when it was operated as a cotton manufacturing mill. C.F. Hathaway & Co. was built in 1881 and made shirts at the building until 2003, when it closed. Paul Boghossian redeveloped the mill building for about $30 million.

A Rhode Island resident, Boghossian is a graduate of Colby College. The sellers purchased the property in 2006.

The apartments are fully leased, and the property includes an on-site gym, business center, parking and access to the Kennebec River, according to a news release from CBRE|New England.

Significant tenants in the office space include MaineGeneral Health, Cengage Learning and Collaborative Consulting.

The buyer is an affiliate of North River Company, a New York-based commercial real estate development firm that owns other properties in Maine, including the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick, and the Pierce Atwood building and One and Two Portland Square in Portland, according to the release.

While the Creative Center is listed by the city as having an assessed value of the building and parking lot at about $9 million, Paszyc said the $20 million sale price reflects the property’s actual value to the buyers.

He said the price tag was a function of the income that was created through the lease with MaineGeneral Medical Center and the 67 market-rate apartments on site.

“Investors typically valuate property as a function of the net operating income that is generated,” he said. “It is still about 83 percent occupied, but the buyers looked at the vacant space as upside, which will create more value in the long run.”

Paszyc said the Hathaway sale is part of the big picture of the rebirth of the city of Waterville.

Alfond Foundation Chairman Greg Powell announced the Alfond Leaders program this week in the Hains building, downtown, where the technology company CGI Group will move this summer and plans to bring about 200 jobs to the area in the next few years. Colby College, a partner in the Alfond initiative, is renovating the building with a $5 million infusion of cash and is investing about $45 million in the downtown overall as part of the city and Colby’s efforts to revitalize the downtown and bring more people living and working downtown. The Hains building will have retail uses on the first floor.

The Waterville City Council on March 21 will consider leasing parking spaces in a city-owned public parking lot at the south end of Front Street to Colby College for use by a planned hotel across the street.

The Alfond Foundation joined Colby last year in announcing a $20 million investment to jump-start downtown revitalization. Colby has bought several buildings downtown, including the Hains building; the former Elks building on Appleton Street, which was demolished to make way for parking; the former Levine’s building on Main Street, which also was razed, and where Colby plans to build a 42-room boutique hotel with a restaurant; and the former Waterville Hardware building across the street.

Colby plans to build a $25 million student residential complex on the northeast part of The Concourse. About 200 students, as well as staff and faculty members, will live in the building and be part of a special civic engagement program. The first floor will include retail uses and will house a glassed-in forum space that may be used by the public for meetings.

]]> 0 Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville has been sold for about $20 million.Thu, 23 Feb 2017 21:34:29 +0000
Landlords are increasingly owning the U.S. housing market Thu, 23 Feb 2017 15:15:29 +0000 As rising home prices, slow new home construction, and demographic shifts push homeownership rates to 50-year lows, the U.S. is increasingly a country of renters and landlords.

Last year, 37 percent of homes sold were acquired by buyers who didn’t live in them, according to tax-assessment data compiled in a new report published by Attom Data Solutions and Inc.

That number may include second homes, or properties acquired by investors who seek to fix up old homes and resell them at a profit. But it’s also a strong indication that landlords are playing a larger role in the U.S. housing market.

In the years following the foreclosure crisis, Wall Street drove a rise in the share of homes purchased by landlords, as private equity firms bought thousands of cheap homes. In 2012, institutional investors accounted for 7.8 percent of home sales, according to the report.

Rising home prices led big investors to curtail their purchases, and the share of homes acquired by institutional investors fell to 2.9 percent last year. But as Wall Street backed off, smaller investors picked up the slack, aided by tools developed to help big investors find, finance, and manage rental properties.

Smaller investors – particularly those who have already paid off their mortgages on the homes they live in – see rental properties as an attractive way to save for retirement.

To some extent, they’re focusing their resources on cheaper markets, because the profit margins are better at lower price points, said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at Attom Data Solutions.

In Seattle, where the median home price was $414,000 at the end of last year, the annual share of sales to non-occupiers peaked in 2013, at 23 percent. But in cheaper Dallas, where the median home price was $201,000, the share of homes sold to people who don’t live in them nearly doubled over the last 12 years.

Whether the rise of the rental landlord is a positive development is an open question, said Blomquist. “On one hand, landlords are filling a need that exists because of the low homeownership rates. They may also be crowding out folks that want to be homeowners but can’t compete with investors.”

]]> 0, 23 Feb 2017 11:28:38 +0000
Maine Credit Union League’s incoming top exec promises technology boost Thu, 23 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The incoming head of Maine’s trade group for credit unions said his top priority is to use advanced technology and data to save consumers money and help them make better financial decisions.

The Maine Credit Union League and its for-profit data processing affiliate Synergent have chosen Todd Mason to replace outgoing President and CEO John Murphy, who plans to retire this summer. Mason is a credit union industry veteran from Michigan with executive experience in that state’s credit union trade organization.

Mason’s current job is chief strategy officer for RouteOne, an indirect automotive lending technology company based in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Before that, he worked for the Michigan Credit Union League and Affiliates for 19 years, serving in a variety of roles including vice president of technology, education and marketing, and chief operating officer of the league’s CU Solutions Group. He also helped launch a cooperative venture called League InfoSight, where he served as its chief operating officer.

Mason said he plans to arrive in Maine in late April. It will be his first time living in the state. He said the Maine league and Synergent have an outstanding national reputation, particularly in the area of technology, which drew him to the job.

“There are some really interesting things going on around technology in the financial world,” Mason said. “Synergent is really at the core of that.”

Synergent is a for-profit subsidiary of the Maine league that provides data-processing services to credit unions. It also offers back-end services such as shared branching, statement processing, ATM, debit card, check processing and support services, along with data mining for marketing purposes.

Mason said the Maine league and Synergent seemed like a good fit because they share his desire to push credit union technology further without compromising the industry’s emphasis on personal interaction. He said an example of technology he would like to see implemented is the use of artificial intelligence to better connect credit union members with services they may need.

Mason said he also was impressed with the Maine league’s success at promoting credit unions in the state. His job will include leading the marketing, education and lobbying efforts for the industry.

“Maine is a very well-respected organization in the credit union system,” he said. “In Maine, we have some of the highest member penetration in the U.S.,” with over 50 percent of state residents belonging to a credit union.

In September, Murphy announced plans to retire in June after 25 years as head of the Maine Credit Union League and Synergent. He has held numerous positions during his 44-year career with the organizations and participated in the development of many products, services and programs for credit unions. Together, the league and Synergent employ 163 people.

“To me, it’s a very bittersweet position to be in,” Murphy said. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had through my own career.”

The process of choosing Murphy’s replacement involved an extensive, six-month national search conducted by O’Rourke & Associates that first led to the selection of five finalists by a six-member search committee. Ultimately, the league’s board of directors chose Mason.

“We just felt that he was a good overall fit,” Murphy said.

Board Chairman and Connected CU CEO Rick Lachance said the board found Murphy to be the most aligned with the league’s values, culture and shared vision for its member organizations. His background in technology also was considered a major asset, Lachance said.

“His extensive leadership experience, with both a technology organization and working with innovative credit union trade association services, allows Todd to bring unique skills to our organizations,” he said. “Our board looks forward to the innovation and service commitment that he will bring to the credit unions we serve.”

Formed in 1938, the Maine Credit Union League’s membership comprises all 58 credit unions in Maine.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

]]> 0 MasonThu, 23 Feb 2017 20:05:48 +0000 While commutes get longer, more workers just stay home Thu, 23 Feb 2017 02:06:15 +0000 New numbers from Gallup show that remote work is becoming more common. Workers today are more likely to spend at least part of their time working apart from their colleagues. And the share of time that these workers are spending out of the office is getting larger.

The Gallup numbers are the latest evidence of a trend that’s been visible in Census data for a number of years now. About 4.6 percent of workers, 6.8 million of them, worked at home in 2015, the latest year for which the Census has data. That’s a nearly 5 percent increase over 2014.

Remote work is the bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape for commuters. According to the Census, the typical American commute has been getting longer each year since 2010.

The Census’s 2015 American Community Survey data, released last fall, show that the average American commute crept up to 26.4 minutes in 2015, or about 24 seconds longer than the previous year. Multiply it all out – 24 seconds per commute, twice a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year – and in 2015 the typical American could expect to spend about three hours and twenty minutes longer getting to and from work than in 2014.

The census data show the longest commutes are also the fastest growing. The total 16-and-over workforce – from which these numbers are derived – grew by roughly 1.7 percent from 2014 to 2015 (148.3 million workers). But the number of workers with 45-minute commutes grew even faster (3.5 percent). The number with hourlong commutes grew even faster than that (5.1 percent).

And workers with extreme commutes – 90 minutes or more – grew by the fastest rate of all (8 percent). At the other end of the spectrum, the number of workers with commutes under 10 minutes actually shrank.

There are a number of factors driving this trend – Americans’ decades-long shift toward the suburbs, among them. A Brookings report found that, even as jobs followed them toward the edges of metropolitan areas, the sprawl of suburban and exurban areas led to longer commutes.

]]> 0 statistics show the longest commutes are also the fastest growing – for those who still commute. The share of workers at home is growing.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 21:14:53 +0000
Meeting minutes show Federal Reserve members open to raising rates soon Thu, 23 Feb 2017 01:35:55 +0000 WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said the economy’s continued growth might convince it to raise its benchmark interest rate soon, potentially at an upcoming meeting, according to new documents released Wednesday, even as it acknowledged that the ambitious policies proposed by the Trump administration could have unforeseen effects on the U.S. economy.

Minutes released this week from the Fed’s meeting in January suggested that tax cuts and spending proposals floated by the Trump administration continue to loom large over the Federal Reserve’s decisions. While the Fed chose to leave its interest rates unchanged at a meeting three weeks ago, investors widely expect two to three more rate hikes this year, perhaps as early as March, as the Fed continues on its path of gradually raising interest rates to combat gathering inflation.

The central bank said it continues to carefully watch for signs that inflation will overshoot its longer-run target of 2 percent. But while some members of the committee judged that a tighter labor market could trigger price increases in the future, others argued that inflation remains below the 2 percent target and that the threat of rapid inflation was not imminent.

The minutes showed the Fed weighing both upside and downside risks from Trump administration policies. If enacted, tax cuts of the kind proposed by the administration would likely increase the amount of money in the economy and could lead to more inflationary pressures.

On the other hand, policies that encourage greater investment in the United States could also lead to an appreciation in the dollar, which would make U.S. exports seem relatively more expensive and drag on growth. A trade war could also slow U.S. exports or destabilize foreign economies.

The minutes showed that some members of the committee argued that the Fed should continue undeterred on its path of gradually raising interest rates, since many other factors will influence the economy. Others “cautioned against” designing monetary policy to address fiscal policy that might never be enacted or might turn out to have different consequences than anticipated.

The Federal Reserve’s decision was unanimous, with all 10 current members of the deciding committee voting to keep interest rates unchanged at 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent.

]]> 0 Wed, 22 Feb 2017 20:35:55 +0000
Heavy flu winter has been hitting smaller business especially hard Thu, 23 Feb 2017 01:33:07 +0000 NEW YORK — All but five of the 26 staffers at BusBank, a transportation booking service, have been sick at some point this season.

On the worst day so far, six people were out sick or caring for children with the flu, and four others were on already planned days off.

“It has been hard for us to keep up, with lots of folks running backup for each other,” says Brandon Dudley, vice president of the Chicago-based company that arranges bus charters for events ranging from nights on the town to long-distance trips.

Human resources consultants have been hearing from company owners overwhelmed by flu-related absences.

In its latest report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 35 states had moderate to high levels of flu cases.

More than 5 percent of people seeking medical help complained of flu-like symptoms during the week ended Feb. 11, up from a baseline of 2.2 percent, the CDC said.

telecommuting helps

“Small businesses’ operations are so lean that having two people sick at one time is a very big impact,” says Amy Marcum, a human resources consultant with Houston-based Insperity.

Telecommuting has helped lessen the flu’s impact on companies like BusBank, where staffers mainly work on laptops. So customers are getting their buses, Dudley says.

But some projects like updating the company’s website have had to be delayed. When Denise Stern’s staffers are sick, they can’t work, period.

Stern owns Let Mommy Sleep, a franchise company that provides overnight baby care for children ranging from newborn to 6 months old — and someone who’s sick cannot care for an infant. At times during this flu season, Stern has had a quarter of her more than 20 caregivers calling out sick.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” says Stern, who founded Let Mommy Sleep and runs the Washington, D.C.-area branch of her company. Let Mommy Sleep also has franchises in northern New Jersey and Philadelphia.

small shops hit hard

When a caregiver is ill, Stern will try to call in a backup. But so many employees have been sick that at times she either has no one available, or found the family is reluctant to have a caregiver they’re not familiar with.

“I can’t tell you how awful it is to be speaking with a mom on the verge of tears because we don’t have staff to help,” says Stern, who estimates her profits are down 15 percent for February.

At BOCA Communications, as many as four employees at a time have been sick with either the flu or a stomach virus.

“It’s the gnarliest flu season we’ve seen in 10 years,” says Ashley Breinlinger, a senior vice president at the San Francisco-based public relations firm. “People have been sicker than I’ve ever seen.”

The bugs have been so bad that Breinlinger and CEO Kathleen Shanahan have asked staffers when they first start feeling unwell to stay home and not spread their germs.

Employees’ ability to work from home as much as possible has limited the impact on BOCA’s productivity, and the company is set up so everyone has a backup to finish projects. Another saving grace is that clients are empathizing, not complaining.

“Clients are sick too, so they’re understanding,” Breinlinger says.

With the flu season expected to last into the spring, Insperity’s Marcum advises business owners to be proactive to protect staffers’ health as well as company operations.

Employees should be encouraged to work at home if they’re not feeling well, and to get flu shots if they haven’t already done so.

Some companies will bring in medical personnel to administer shots onsite.

Now is also the time to create backup plans, designating which staffers will cover for others. Some owners might also want to think in advance about arranging to get temporary help if needed.

Kristen Burris estimates she lost a third of her working days in January when she was sick three times and her son was also ill.

“It’s definitely the worst flu season we have experienced in years,” says Burris, co-owner of Eagle Acupuncture in Eagle, Idaho.

Her husband, Tony, covered the practice as best he could. But many clients whose sessions were canceled just waited till their next appointment. Practice hours lost to the flu came on top of cancellations forced by record snowfall in Idaho last month.

Burris is adding 12 extra hours to her weekly schedule in hopes of recouping some income. But the rest? “It’s 100 percent lost,” she says.

]]> 0 Breinlinger, right, a senior vice president at BOCA Communications, talks with owner Kathleen Shanahan, Breinlinger describes this flu season as the ugliest she's seen in 10 years.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 20:33:07 +0000
Pipeline protesters abandon camp but may simply relocate Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:26:04 +0000 CANNON BALL, N.D. —Most of the Dakota Access pipeline opponents abandoned their protest camp Wednesday ahead of a government deadline to get off the federal land, and authorities moved in to arrest others who defied the order in a final show of dissent.

The camp has been home to demonstrators for nearly a year as they tried to thwart construction of the pipeline. Many of the protesters left peacefully, but police began making arrests two hours after the deadline.

Earlier in the day, some of the last remnants of the camp went up in flames when occupants set fire to makeshift wooden housing as part of a leaving ceremony.

As many as 75 people outside the camp started taunting officers, who brought five large vans to the scene. Police took at least nine people into custody for failing to heed commands to leave, authorities said.

With darkness falling, Lt. Tom Iverson said police would not enter the camp Wednesday evening, but he offered no timetable for doing so.

Levi Bachmeier, an adviser to Gov. Doug Burgum, said about 50 people remained in the camp at dusk.

Hours before, about 150 people marched arm-in-arm out of the soggy camp, singing and playing drums as they walked down a highway. It was not clear where they were headed. One man carried an American flag hung upside-down.

Authorities sent buses to take protesters to Bismarck, where they were offered fresh clothing, bus fares home and food and hotel vouchers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set the deadline, citing the threat of spring flooding.

At the height of the protests, the site known as Oceti Sakowin hosted thousands of people, though its population dwindled to just a couple of hundred as the pipeline battle moved into the courts.

The camp is on federal land in North Dakota between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the pipeline route that is being finished by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. When complete, the project will carry oil through the Dakotas and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois.

Some of the protesters were focused on moving off federal land and away from the flood plain, said Phyllis Young, one of the camp leaders.

“The camps will continue,” she said. “Freedom is in our DNA, and we have no choice but to continue the struggle.”

New camps are popping up on private land, including one the Cheyenne River Sioux set up about a mile from the main camp.

“A lot of our people want to be here and pray for our future,” tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said.

Others, including Dom Cross, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, said he planned to return home after living at the camp for six months.

“There’s a lot of sadness right now. We have to leave our second home,” he said.

]]> 0 fire burns in the background as opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline leave their protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. on Wednesday. Authorities were preparing to shut down the camp before spring flooding season.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 19:26:04 +0000
Nationally, existing-home sales rose in January at quickest pace since 2007 Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:18:10 +0000 WASHINGTON — Americans shrugged off rising mortgage rates and bought existing homes in January at the fastest pace since 2007, leading in some cases to bidding wars and pushing up prices as the supply of available homes has dwindled to record lows.

Home sales rose 3.3 percent in January from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.69 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday.

Steady job gains, modest pay raises and rising consumer confidence are spurring healthy home buying even as borrowing costs have risen since last fall. Some potential buyers may be accelerating their home purchases to get ahead of any further increases in mortgage rates. With few homes available for sale, buyers are pressured to rapidly close a deal as they find a suitable property.

The typical house was on the market for just 50 days last month, compared with 64 days a year ago. Strong demand is pushing up median home prices, which jumped 7.1 percent from a year earlier to $228,900.

Just 1.69 million homes were on the market nationwide in January, near the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1999.

It would take just 3.6 months to deplete that supply at the current pace of sales, matching a record low reached in December.

Supply is usually equal to about six months of sales in a balanced housing market.

The supply crunch will likely get worse during the upcoming spring buying season, economists say, as demand typically rises by more than supply during that time.

“Relative to the number of households, the number of homes for sale is well through prior historic lows,” said Ted Wieseman, an economist at Morgan Stanley.

“The level of inventories could be a much bigger challenge moving into much higher sales in the spring and summer.”

That, combined with higher mortgage rates, could soon restrain sales.

“We are a bit less gloomy about housing than a couple of months ago but sales will not continue to rise at their recent pace,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

The bulk of the stronger buying is occurring among higher-priced properties, the NAR said.

Sales of homes and condominiums priced at $100,000 and below fell nearly 10 percent in January compared with a year earlier.

They rose slightly in the $100,000 to $250,000 bracket and jumped by roughly 20 percent in homes priced at higher levels.

Last year, low mortgage rates helped offset rising home prices. Yet now both are rising.

Mortgage rates have climbed since the presidential election. Investors are anticipating that tax cuts, deregulation and infrastructure spending will accelerate growth and push up inflation.

That has caused investors to cut back on their bond holdings, pushing up yields.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.15 percent last week, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac.

That has dipped since earlier this month, but is much higher than last year’s average rate of 3.65 percent.

By some measures, the housing market has fully recovered from the bust that began in 2006. Yet its newfound health is creating its own set of challenges.

In high-demand markets, mostly on the West Coast, homes are being purchased after less than a month on the market, according to real estate brokerage Redfin.

Denver was the fastest market last month, Redfin found, with purchase contracts signed just 23 days after listing for a typical home, far below the 43 days that was typical a year earlier.

Seattle was the second fastest, with 26 days on the market, followed by Oakland, at 27 days.

The strength in sales should lift growth going forward as new homeowners purchase furniture, buy appliances and spend more on landscaping and outdoor equipment.

Home sales also tend to spur renovations, which helps to update aging properties and generates additional construction work for the broader economy.

]]> 0 typical house was on the market for just 50 days in January, compared with 64 days a year ago, and the median price jumped 7.1 percent to $228,900.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 20:27:16 +0000
Wex donates $25,000 to help fill gaps in Eastern Trail in Scarborough Wed, 22 Feb 2017 23:24:10 +0000 Wex, the South Portland-based provider of corporate payment solutions, has donated $25,000 to the Eastern Trail Alliance’s effort to complete a 1.6-mile section of the off-road recreational trail as it passes through Scarborough.

The alliance has raised $3.2 million of $3.8 million needed to build two bridges in Scarborough – one over the Nonesuch River near Eastern Road and the other over railroad tracks near Pleasant Hill Road, according to a news release. Once the bridges are completed, trail users will have access to 16 contiguous, off-road miles from downtown Saco to Bug Light Park in South Portland.

“Many of our employees live and work in close proximity to the Eastern Trail and these expansion efforts align with our philanthropic mission to support wellness within our communities,” said Hilary Rapkin, Wex senior vice president and general counsel.

Since the “Close the Gap” campaign started in 2012, the alliance has received funding from Maine Department of Transportation, $1.55 million; Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, $1.1 million; Scarborough and South Portland, $286,000; Town and Country Federal Credit Union, $100,000; Avangrid, $25,000; and the Thompson Family of South Portland, $25,000, among other donations.

“This is one of the largest projects the trail has ever taken on and we wouldn’t be this successful without the strong support from Wex and our other funding partners,” said Carole Brush, alliance executive director.

The Eastern Trail is a 65-mile on- and off-road recreational trail that runs from South Portland to Kittery. It’s part of a larger effort to establish a 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway from Calais to Key West, Florida.

]]> Currier, left, and Jack Currier of Scarborough walk in December on the section of the Eastern Trail that goes through the Scarborough Marsh. The Eastern Trail Alliance is raising money to build two bridges that would fill gaps in the trail in Scarborough.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 18:27:27 +0000
January a robust month for existing home sales and prices in Maine Wed, 22 Feb 2017 19:11:51 +0000 Sales of existing single-family homes in Maine rose 7.9 percent in January from a year earlier.

Real estate agents across the state assisted in the sale of 959 homes at a median price of $190,000, up 8.3 percent from a year earlier, according to a news release from the Maine Association of Realtors.

Several factors helped boost January sales, said association President Greg Gosselin, owner and broker of Gosselin Realty Group in York, despite a shortage of homes listed for sale in many areas of Maine.

“Mortgage interest rates remain historically low, households have confidence in their job security, and buyers are searching now in anticipation of moving this spring,” Gosselin said in the release.

The lack of supply relative to demand also drove up prices in nearly all parts of the state.

“In many markets across Maine, buyers need more housing inventory,” Gosselin said. “Statewide, the inventory of ‘for-sale homes’ is 24 percent lower than this time a year ago.”

For the three-month period ending Jan. 31, home sales statewide were up 12.6 percent from a year earlier, and the median sale price was up 6.5 percent to $189,000. The median price indicates that half of homes sold for more and half sold for less.

Waldo County had the biggest percent increase in sales activity during the three-month period, with the number of transactions up 42.7 percent from a year earlier. Sagadahoc County had the biggest decrease, with the number of transactions down 26 percent from a year earlier.

Somerset County had the biggest increase in median price for the three-month period, up 36.7 percent to $110,000 from a year earlier. Hancock County experienced the only decrease in median price, down 1.1 percent to $225,000 from a year earlier.

Nationally, sales of single-family homes rose 3.7 percent in January compared with a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors. The national median sale price reached $230,400 in January, up 7.3 percent from January 2015.

Regionally, sales in the Northeast were up 6.7 percent from a year earlier, the association said, and the regional median price increased by 2.5 percent to $253,800.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

]]> 0 Thu, 23 Feb 2017 06:20:53 +0000
Lewiston-Auburn chamber selects familiar advocate as new chief Wed, 22 Feb 2017 17:04:53 +0000 A woman who spent decades advocating for the Lewiston-Auburn community has been named the new chief of that area’s chamber of commerce.

Rebecca Swanson Conrad will start as the new president and chief executive officer of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on March 27, according to a release announcing the appointment. Conrad replaces Matt Leonard, who stepped down in November after a run-in with the chamber board over the raffle of a rifle.

Conrad is currently the vice president for institutional advancement at Maine College of Art in Portland, where she has worked since 2006.

“We were looking for specific attributes, and one of the biggest is someone who is a relationship builder and collaborator,” said Jen Hogan, president of Community Credit Union in Lewiston and the chair-elect of the board for the L-A chamber. ” That’s who Beckie is – it’s her nature. Also, with her strong ties to the community and as a former board member of the chamber, she’ll be a great next step for the chamber.”

Conrad’s L-A roots go back to her days as a student at Bates College, where she majored in English. She spent 21 years in higher education administration at Bates College, including 1999-2003 when she served as executive director of LA Excels, the college’s nonprofit community development partnership in Lewiston-Auburn that focused on leadership, arts, educational aspirations and economic revitalization.

Her business experience includes 20 years as co-owner with her husband of Austin’s Fine Wines and Foods and three years as owner of Rÿsen Home Garden & Antiques, a retail gallery promoting local art and products that supported international women’s economic development. Both businesses were in downtown Auburn.

Hogan, who led the search committee for the new chamber CEO, said Conrad’s experience as a business owner, fundraiser and her familiarity with higher education combined to make her the ideal pick. The search committee considered more than 50 resumes and conducted several interviews before deciding on Conrad Feb. 17.

Conrad served on the Maine Arts Commission for seven years, with four as vice-chair. Volunteer board roles include chair of the Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council, past chair of L/A Arts and Androscoggin Home Care & Hospice, vice chair of the Maine Association of Nonprofits and as a board member of Advocates for Children, the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and the advisory boards of USM/LA College and Central Maine Community College.

]]> 0, 22 Feb 2017 18:59:27 +0000
Airbnb rentals in Maine doubled over past year Wed, 22 Feb 2017 16:22:54 +0000 Hosts using the Airbnb online home-sharing service earned $26 million and hosted about 174,000 visitors in Maine last year, according to data released by Airbnb Wednesday.

The announcement comes as Gov. Paul LePage tries to amend the state’s tax rules to ensure that hosts on Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms are collecting the required lodging tax of 9 percent and forwarding it to the state. If all Airbnb hosts had paid that tax in 2016, the state would have collected about $2.3 million in tax revenue.

According to Airbnb, a typical Maine host earned $5,900 in supplemental income last year, and a typical listing was occupied for 30 nights with an average length of stay of 2.7 nights. The number of visitors using Airbnb represents a 100 percent year-over-year increase, the company said. There were 3,700 active Airbnb hosts in the state in 2016, up from 2,100 in 2015.

“We are proud to see that more and more Mainers have discovered home sharing as an opportunity to share their community with visitors from around the world, and earn a little bit of extra money along the way,” said Andrew Kalloch, head of northeast public policy for Airbnb, in a written statement.

Portland is the top Airbnb destination in the state, with 51,214 guest arrivals and $7.1 million in host revenue in 2016, according to Airbnb’s data. The second most popular location, Bar Harbor, had 7,101 visitors and $1.4 million in revenue. Other top destinations were South Portland, Ellsworth and Old Orchard Beach.

While the popularity of home-sharing and short-term rentals has surged in recent years, it is still a fraction of the overall lodging market in the state.

Steve Hewins, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, estimated there were $950 million in lodging sales in Maine in 2016. Maine hosted an estimated 9.5 million overnight visitors during the peak summer season in 2016, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

Hotels have complained that Airbnb hosts have an unfair advantage because they don’t have to play by the same rules as traditional innkeepers, Hewins said. But the real tension is between hosts and communities, he said, noting that many of his association members use Airbnb and other online rental platforms to advertise their properties.

“We don’t have a negative view of Airbnb, other than we want to make sure those online platforms need to collect Maine lodging tax and remit it, that would be our concern,” Hewins said.

The biennial budget proposed by LePage has a section to address that concern.

Under the current law, short-term rental of living quarters is subject to the 9 percent lodging tax. But a person who only has one rental unit, such as a room, and rents it for fewer than 15 days a year in most cases doesn’t have to collect tax on that rent, said David Heidrich, a spokesman for Maine Revenue Services.

But if the property is rented on behalf of the owner by a rental agent, that agent must collect and remit the tax regardless of the number of days the unit is rented, Heidrich said. That rule currently doesn’t apply to online rental sites, such as Airbnb, VRBO or, but a proposed change in the law would require “transient rental platforms” to collect the tax from consumers. That means the tax would be collected by the online company when the property is booked and remitted to the appropriate state agency.

“Such a change would level the playing field for Maine businesses and relieve Maine-based hosts of their obligation to collect and remit the lodging tax,” Heidrich said.

“Transient rental platforms have opened the short-term rental market to hosts that might not normally make their homes available for rent, and we view this policy change as an important way for our tax laws to keep up with emerging technologies,” he added.

Airbnb collects lodging taxes from consumers in 16 other states, company spokesman Peter Shottenfels said.

Communities across the state including Rockland, Bar Harbor and Cape Elizabeth have set up rules to regulate short-term rentals and other communities are developing regulations. Short-term rentals have become a hot-button issue in Portland, where critics are concerned that building owners are converting apartments and homes into lucrative full-time short-term rentals, worsening an affordable housing crisis and changing the character of some neighborhoods. Hosts and supporters say the platform allows homeowners to make extra money to pay bills and fund repairs and gives guests a more authentic housing alternative to inns and hotels.

The Portland City Council is expected to debate and vote on proposed rules soon. The City Council’s Housing Committee recommended Feb. 8 that the full council consider several regulations, including annual registration and a 300-unit limit on short-term rental units that aren’t occupied by an owner.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

]]> 0, ME - OCTOBER 8: Gary Wagner vaccums the half of his home he rents out on Airbnb after guests had left Thursday, October 8, 2015. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)Thu, 23 Feb 2017 14:13:42 +0000
Maine businesses, jobs thrive on growing devotion to pets Wed, 22 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Americans’ deep love of pets has fueled a fast-growing U.S. industry that surpassed $220 billion of economic impact in 2015.

That’s great news for Maine, where the state’s largest publicly traded company and other smaller players benefit directly from the pet industry’s growth.

“The pet industry is a big and rapidly growing segment of the U.S. economy,” said Jonathan Ayers, president and CEO of animal health diagnostics provider Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook. “Maine is benefiting from that in a big way.”

The U.S. pet industry generated $221 billion in economic impact, paid out $60.5 billion in wages and benefits, and supported over 1.3 million jobs in 2015, according to a recent study by Virginia-based George Mason University.

Although the study does not give a state-by-state breakdown of the economic impact, pet industry leaders in Maine said it provides thousands of jobs to Mainers and generates billions of annual revenue dollars within the state.

Areas of the industry that have experienced growth in recent years include animal sales, pet food, veterinary services, animal pharmaceuticals, pet health insurance, grooming, boarding, pet-sitting and a variety of other products and services, according to the study.

“The pet industry is one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries as the nation has seen a dramatic upswing in the number of U.S. households that are pet owners,” the study concluded. “As the industry grows, spending by pet households generates a flow of economic activity that spreads across the nation and involves many sectors of the economy.”


According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $60.28 billion on pet products in 2015, an average of $484 per household, up from $58.04 billion, or $471 per household, in 2014. It estimates that spending in 2016 was $62.75 billion, or $499 per household.

About 65 percent of U.S. households include at least one pet, which equates to 79.7 million homes, according to the association. That fondness for companion animals underscores the growth of the businesses that serve them.

On Friday, Idexx reported 2016 revenue of $1.78 billion, an increase of nearly 11 percent from its 2015 revenue of $1.6 billion. The company’s net income was $222.1 million in 2016, up nearly 16 percent from $192.1 million in 2015. Idexx has nearly 2,500 employees in Maine and about 7,000 worldwide.

In January, Idexx was added to the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, a stock index of 500 publicly traded companies that is considered a leading bellwether of the U.S. economy. No other Maine-based company is currently included in the index.

“We are by far the largest player in Maine in the pet care industry, by an order of magnitude or more,” Ayers said. “But we’re not the only player.”

Another Maine business that has benefited from the pet industry’s growth is Planet Dog, a maker of high-end dog toys and accessories, also based in Westbrook. The business sells its products to independent retailers, as well as to consumers online and at its company store on Marginal Way in Portland.

Founded with two people in 1997, Planet Dog now has a staff of 30 and is experiencing annual sales growth that outpaces even the fast-growing pet industry, company CEO Colleen McCracken said. The private company does not publicly disclose its revenue and net income figures, she said.

Another fast-growing participant in the pet industry is Portland-based Vets First Choice, which operates an online pharmacy for pet medications. Founded in 2010, the company has consistently made Inc. magazine’s Inc. 5000 list of the country’s fastest-growing private companies. It employs more than 150 people.

In 2016, Vets First Choice landed at No. 1,232 on the list, with 2015 revenue of $60.9 million and average annual revenue growth of 316 percent over the previous three years. Vets First Choice CEO Ben Shaw is the son of Idexx founder David Shaw.

Portland-based Putney Inc. is another Maine company that has experienced tremendous recent success in the pet industry. Putney, a maker of generic pet medicines with 2015 revenue of nearly $50 million, was acquired in March 2016 by Dechra Holdings, a subsidiary of United Kingdom-based Dechra Pharmaceuticals PLC. The purchase price was reported to be $200 million.


Demand for high-end pet food and health-related pet products in general has been skyrocketing, McCracken said, as more pet owners have come to regard their animals as valued members of their families.

“Within the state we are seeing a shift in pet parents wanting the absolute best for their dogs,” she said.

That includes better nutrition, McCracken said. Gone are the days when most pet owners were satisfied with purchasing the biggest brand-name food at the local Wal-Mart. They want to feel like they are providing their pets with the healthiest diet possible and are willing to pay a premium for it, she said.

“The biggest growth in the pet industry is coming from nutrition,” McCracken said. “Raw food is all the rage.”

The millennial generation is a big driver of the trend toward greater spending on pet health, Ayers said.

Idexx has conducted its own surveys of pet owners and found that 87 percent of millennials said they are willing to spend money to improve their pets’ health, he said. Fifty-seven percent of millennials said pets make them happier than anything else in their lives. In both cases, the positive response from millennials was higher than from other age groups such as baby boomers, Ayers said.

McCracken agreed that millennials are driving the industry’s growth and the shift toward higher spending on pets.

“I don’t think people understand what’s happening in the pet space,” she said. “Millennials are adopting pets as practice for being parents.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

Twitter: jcraiganderson

]]> 0, a westie, prowls the aisles of Planet Dog in Portland with owner Angela Corbin of Foxboro, Mass. Americans spent $60.3 billion on pet products in 2015, or $484 per household.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 10:59:25 +0000
Macy’s earnings drop nearly 13% on low sales Wed, 22 Feb 2017 00:32:56 +0000 NEW YORK — Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store chain, says its earnings for the quarter that includes the holiday period dropped nearly 13 percent as results were dragged down by lower sales, store closures and other costs.

The profit results beat Wall Street expectations, but Macy’s said it would post another year of sales declines for a key revenue measure. Like many department stores, Macy’s has faced sluggish sales as customers buy more online and less at the malls where they are often an anchor. Macy’s has been shuttering stores as it tries to regroup.

Macy’s has also been under pressure from shareholders to get more value out of its real estate holdings, valued by activist investor Starboard at nearly $21 billion. The chain has reportedly been in preliminary talks with Hudson’s Bay about a takeover or a real estate deal. However, Macy’s declined to talk about the topic to investors on a call Tuesday, saying it doesn’t comment on rumors. It did say it will be looking to further monetize its locations and that it made $673 million in the latest year in asset sales.

For the three months ended Jan. 28, Macy’s earned $475 million, or $1.54 per share. That compares with $544 million, or $1.73 per share, in the year-ago period. Adjusted earnings per share came to $2.02. Analysts had expected $1.95 per share for the quarter, according to FactSet. Revenue fell 4 percent to $8.52 billion, while analysts had expected $8.61 billion.

“While 2016 was not the year we expected, we made significant progress on key initiatives that are starting to bear fruit,” Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren said. He will step down March 23 and be succeeded by president Jeff Gennette.

Lundgren has been credited for nearly doubling sales during his 13-year tenure at the top. And Macy’s had been a stellar performer after the recession, but has seen sales slow as it and other traditional department store chains face competition from online leader Amazon and off-price rivals. They’re also wrestling with shoppers’ shift away from buying clothing in favor of experiences.

The Macy’s brand still has around 700 stores, but it has been more aggressive about closings while scrambling to offer more exclusive merchandise and expand online. It’s also tried launching its own off-price stores called Macy’s Backstage.

]]> 0 cross near Macy's in New York City. As consumers buy more online, the nation's largest department store chain has aggressively shuttered stores while trying to adapt its brand and web presence.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 20:16:07 +0000
Pen Bay doctors worry that switch to single board could cause problems Tue, 21 Feb 2017 23:51:25 +0000 ROCKPORT — Doctors at Pen Bay Medical Center are concerned that a proposal by parent corporation MaineHealth to create a single board of directors could result in a loss of local control and potentially cuts in services at the Rockport hospital.

Those concerns were voiced in a Jan. 9 letter to employees by the president of the Pen Bay medical staff summarizing a Jan. 5 meeting of physicians.

The Pen Bay letter follows a similar letter sent out in November by the physicians at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast.

MaineHealth has proposed creating a single board of trustees that would make decisions for all member hospitals and affiliated organizations, such as nursing homes and home health agencies. Currently, each member organization has a separate board.

When Pen Bay Healthcare became a MaineHealth member in 2010, the agreement stipulated that no service offered locally could be discontinued unless initiated and approved by the local board.

Pen Bay Healthcare and Waldo County — which became a MaineHealth member in 2009 — merged in 2015 into a single organization and board called Coastal Healthcare Alliance, which remains a member of MaineHealth.

“For clinicians at PBMC, we do not have a good recent history of alignment and confidence in the local administration, nor have we had good support from MH,” stated the letter from Dr. Stephanie Lash, president of the medical staff.

Lash stated that the medical staff recognizes the need for more regional planning for health care, but that there are meaningful differences between health care in the urban/suburban environment of Portland and in the vast bulk of rural Maine.

“The floated governance model of a single board, of which 50 percent is Portland-based raises real concerns about preserving a rural voice, as only one small hospital would have to vote with Portland to create a majority on any issue,” she said. “Moreover, as PBMC is now rolled into CHA, it appears there would be only one board member for both PBMC and Waldo, meaning in essence that PBMC, one of the largest smaller hospitals, would have a half vote on the proposed new board. How could this half person adequately and fully represent all of the needs/nuances of our hospital is not clear,” she stated.

The medical staff president also pointed out the concerns that physicians have about the finances at Pen Bay.

“And finally coming to the cost/financial issues, there is a deep sense of frustration and even anger re. the financial position of PBMC. While easy to cast blame elsewhere in any situation, the financial problem for this hospital is something physicians care about, but not something we can fix,” she stated.

Coastal Healthcare Alliance reported a $3.26 million operating loss in the 12 months ending Sept. 30. A source told the Courier-Gazette in December that the loss was due to Pen Bay, and that the Coastal Healthcare loss would have been greater if not for a surplus at Waldo County. The $3.26 million operating loss for Coastal Healthcare was out of a total annual budget of $228.5 million. This translates to a 1.4 percent operating loss.

MaineHealth confirmed in December that Pen Bay lost money in the most recently completed fiscal year, but said the final numbers had not been audited and a bottom-line figure was not available.

The last financial information available for PBMC separately was for 2013-2014, when it reported a $4 million loss out of an $111 million budget.

Pen Bay physicians would like to see much clearer evidence of how the unification would improve Pen Bay’s financial situation going forward and not solely allow MaineHealth to absorb an old loss from PBMC, which then would result in cuts or collapse of clinical services going forward, according to the letter.

The doctor’s letter also cited the problems with the installation of a health care computer software record-keeping system known as EPIC as an example.

“All of our struggles with the EPIC system have probably been the most disruptive and difficult direct effect on our practice we can remember. And this product, rolled out by MH, is still not working well in the ambulatory setting. It has also been vastly more costly than was originally promised,” Lash stated.

Lash’s letter stated that the medical staffs at both PBMC and Waldo need to and can continue to work together to make the physicians’ concerns adequately heard.

MaineHealth initially met with Pen Bay physicians at a Dec. 15 meeting. A Courier reporter went to that meeting, held at the physicians building on the Pen Bay campus, but was asked at the start to leave, since it was a private meeting and the first opportunity for doctors to hear MaineHealth’s presentation.

There have been no public meetings held in the region on the proposed unification.

“MaineHealth member organizations continue to discuss how the organization can better structure itself to meet the considerable challenges facing local community health systems in Maine and across the country,” said Mark Fourre, president and chief executive officer of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo General in a statement issued Tuesday. “With an uncertain future for the federal Affordable Care Act and Medicaid program, and with cuts to hospitals being contemplated by the State of Maine, we remain concerned that even profitable community health systems could face financial difficulty going forward.

“The goal of these unification discussions is to create a structure where each community is able to get the services it needs, backed by the strength of the entire MaineHealth system. We are confident that a balance can be struck where MaineHealth and its members are able to leverage the considerable advantages of having a single budget across the system while keeping intact local decision making with regard to the care delivered in each community.

“As ideas bubble to the surface and start to form a more clear proposal for this restructuring, our member organizations will engage their local communities in coming weeks in a dialogue about the best path going forward. At this time, community stakeholders on our local and system boards, our physicians and the staff leadership across MaineHealth are reviewing options with a focus on our vision of making our communities the healthiest in America,” Fourre concluded.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. Feb. 22 to include comments from MaineHealth.

]]> 0 and medicine or computer antivirus protection and repair maintenance service concept: macro view of blue stethoscope on business office laptop notebook keyboard with selective focus effectWed, 22 Feb 2017 16:47:29 +0000
American, United airlines launch cheaper ‘basic economy’ fares Tue, 21 Feb 2017 23:21:56 +0000 DALLAS — American and United have started selling cheaper “basic economy” fares as they battle discount airlines for the most budget-conscious travelers.

American announced early Tuesday that it began selling the new fares for flights starting March 1 on 10 different routes from its hub airports in Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina.

United followed suit later in the day, posting reduced fares on some flights from Minneapolis to seven of its hub cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for travel starting April 18.

Basic economy fares come with severe restrictions. Buyers can’t pick a seat when they buy the ticket, they’re in the last group to board, and they can only carry a small item that fits under their seat. With a few exceptions, they must pay extra to check a wheeled bag that other economy-class travelers can put in the overhead bin.

But the fares are cheaper.

The savings over a regular economy ticket appear to range from about $24 to $40 for a round-trip ticket on American and United. For example, on two random early-March itineraries between Dallas and Baltimore, economy tickets were listed on American’s website at $249 and $309. Those same trips were priced at $209 and $269 on basic economy.

Even on the routes where American sells the new fares, they are usually available only on a small number of flights – sometimes one or two a day – and on some days, none at all.

Bargain hunters will see more basic-economy options when searching one-way flights, rather than round trips, because American will not allow flyers to buy a round trip that combines the new cheaper fare on one leg with a regular economy fare on the other. On one-way flights, the price break can be as little as $12.

American, the world’s biggest airline, said it will eventually add basic-economy fares on other routes.

The United offering is even more limited – it only appears on some flights between Minneapolis and seven United hubs around the country. United said it started small to ensure a smooth rollout, but plans to expand the idea to the rest of the U.S., the Caribbean and the closest destinations in Latin America.

Basic economy fares were introduced by Delta Air Lines several years ago in response to growing competition from discounter Spirit Airlines. Spirit and Frontier Airlines offer bargain-basement fares but add on more fees than the bigger airlines, including charging for use of overhead bins. They have gained ground among travelers looking for the cheapest price.

Delta now offers basic economy on about 40 percent of its U.S. routes and plans to cover its entire domestic network by mid-year.

The major airlines are losing customers whose internet searches skip American, United and Delta because of higher economy fares, industry consultant Robert Mann said.

The new discount fares could help the big airlines by stimulating new demand and because some people who want a rock-bottom fare will pick a traditional economy ticket instead, Mann said.

]]> 0, 21 Feb 2017 20:12:11 +0000
Maine needs immigrants to fill worker shortage, business leaders say Tue, 21 Feb 2017 23:14:02 +0000 Maine business leaders said Tuesday that the state needs to be more welcoming to immigrants and other newcomers to address looming workforce shortages.

It’s the latest in a string of events intended to focus attention on reforming immigration laws nationally.

Encouraging people to move to Maine is especially critical to address the problem of the state’s aging workforce, said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, in a media conference call with other organizations backing pro-immigration policies. More people are retiring from the workforce in Maine than are entering it, according to state data.

“If we are to continue to have the strong economy we all seek for our people we have to have the immigrant influence on our future the same way we have in the past,” Connors said. “We cannot address our workforce needs without being welcoming to immigrants.”

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation as well as Coastal Enterprises Inc. have released recent reports about the impact of immigrants on the state and called for policies to attract workers and families.

“The issue has been out there for many years, and now people are really feeling it and are desperate to really tap a new supply of workers,” said Carla Dickstein, senior vice president for research and policy at CEI.

The Tuesday call was organized to coincide with a new analysis of economic contributions of immigrants on Maine’s two congressional districts by the Partnership for a New American Economy, an advocacy organization launched by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

The analysis was based on 2014 data included in a statewide report released last year.

Cindy Caplice, human resources manager at the Sigco fabricating company in Westbrook, stands with some of her workers. Caplice says a focus on hiring African immigrants has been an unqualified success for the company. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

The state’s population of about 49,000 immigrants is concentrated in southern Maine. But about 17,900 immigrants live in the second congressional district, where they make up less than 3 percent of the population and pay about $45.4 million in local and state taxes, according to the report. Almost 58 percent are of working age and there are 570 immigrant entrepreneurs in the second district.

Even though the number of immigrants seems small, they can have an outsized impact in a part of the state dealing with the decline of traditional industries and an aging workforce, said Beth Stickney, the head of the newly created Maine Business Immigration Coalition.

“I think there is a very common assumption in Maine that immigrants are a southern Maine thing, and not a northern Maine thing,” Stickney said. “In fact, immigrants are having a very important impact on the second district.”

Stickney, an immigration attorney and co-founder of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, wants the new coalition to be an information clearing house to help companies navigate and understand America’s complex immigration system, and a way to pass information and analysis about changes in immigration policy to business owners Some companies she has talked to just need help with basic questions, like what the difference is between a refugee, immigrant and asylum seeker, Stickney said.

“They essentially need immigration 101,” she said.


Data from the report show how immigrants already contribute to Maine’s economy and where they tend to find jobs. In 2014, immigrant-led households

in Maine earned $1.3 billion dollars, or 3.7 percent of all income earned by Mainers that year, and held about $954 million in spending power, defined as the net income available to a family after paying federal, state, and local taxes.

In industries such as health care and tourism, immigrant workers are essential, said the study’s authors. The top five industries that employ immigrants include computer system design, home health care services, travel accommodation, colleges and universities, and groceries.

Among the top occupations for immigrants are computer systems analysts, where 40 percent of workers are immigrants. Immigrants make up 19 percent of the state’s physicians and surgeons and 18 percent of its education administrators. Newcomers also make up about 14 percent of the state’s practical and vocational nursing workforce, 9 percent of postsecondary teachers and 8 percent of maids and house cleaners.

With the White House and Congress both controlled by Republicans, this could be an opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform that businesses have been clamoring for for years, Stickney said. Reform could affect businesses across the spectrum in Maine, from summer tourism to high-tech manufacturing, she said.

“There are a number of different areas constructed decades ago, and the laws have not been reformed to reflect the changing economic needs in the nation or our state,” she said.

Calls for more immigration contrast with a hardening political position on immigration, especially refugee resettlement and undocumented migrants, from President Trump and Gov. Paul LePage.

Trump in January ordered a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim nations and a temporary halt to refugees that was blocked by a federal judge. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced expanded deportation rules affect anyone in the country illegally who is charged or convicted of any crime, even minor traffic offenses.

In Maine, LePage announced in November the state would pull out of the federal refugee resettlement program, citing concerns about vetting for security threats and a burden on the state’s welfare programs.

Although some business leaders have said moves like the Trump travel ban will make it harder to bring in urgently needed workers, David Barber, of Barber Foods in Portland, said legal immigrants shouldn’t worry.

“Would I say people are a little jumpy? Sure, do I think they need to be jumpy? Not really,” Barber said.

“These people are legal, they need to be here. They don’t need to be nervous because of a change in policy.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

]]> 0 Caplice, human resources manager at the Sigco fabricating company in Westbrook, stands with some of her workers. Caplice says a focus on hiring African immigrants has been an unqualified success for the company.Wed, 22 Feb 2017 07:08:40 +0000
Rudy’s of the Cape will now be known as … Tue, 21 Feb 2017 22:04:04 +0000 Rudy’s of the Cape, a Cape Elizabeth restaurant that has been feeding diners on Route 77 for 50 years, is changing its name to Bird Dog Roadhouse.

Rudy’s, located at 517 Ocean House Road, went through a major transformation in 2015, four years after Paul Woods bought the restaurant. He replaced the old building with one considerably more upscale, and he updated the menu. Now it feels as if the name Rudy’s is “less relevant,” Woods said, and has “run its course.”

“We’re very gratified by how people embraced the new restaurant,” he said. “This is just an identity change for us, something that really captures some of the great things we’re doing and separates us from the old.”

Might & Main, a Portland design firm, worked with Woods on the new name and re-branding. Woods chose the name Bird Dog after he read it somewhere and liked it. The restaurant’s new logo features a retriever with wings and the phrase “We’ve earned our wings!” Woods and operations manager Alli Welch selected “roadhouse” because they felt it conveyed the spirit of the place, a restaurant that “invites everyone in from the main road for great food, drink and service.”

Woods will launch the new name officially on Friday during lunch. The restaurant will feature specials all weekend, and raise money for the Pond Cove Parents Association, which, in turn, raises money for Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth.

]]> 0 team at the Bird Dog Roadhouse, formerly known as Rudy's of the Cape, shows off its new sign.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 18:44:08 +0000
Yahoo salvages Verizon deal with $350 million discount Tue, 21 Feb 2017 14:00:05 +0000 SAN FRANCISCO — Yahoo is taking a $350 million hit on its previously announced $4.8 billion sale to Verizon in a concession for security lapses that exposed personal information stored in more than 1 billion Yahoo user accounts.

The revised agreement, announced Tuesday, eases investor worries that Verizon Communications Inc. would demand a discount of at least $1 billion or cancel the deal entirely.

The hacking bombshells, disclosed after the two companies agreed on a sale, represent the two biggest security breaches in internet history.

The breaches raised concerns that people might decrease their use of Yahoo email and other digital services that Verizon is buying. A smaller audience makes Yahoo’s services less valuable because it reduces the opportunities to show ads – the main reason that Verizon struck the deal seven months ago.

Yahoo has maintained that its users have remained loyal, despite any mistrust that might have been caused by its lax security and the lengthy delay in discovering and disclosing the hacks. The separate attacks occurred in 2013 and 2014; Yahoo disclosed them in 2016.

The lower price will cost Yahoo shareholders roughly 37 cents per share. But they may also be responsible for substantial legal costs.

After the Verizon deal closes, any future bills stemming from the hack will be shouldered by Altaba Inc. – a company that will become the caretaker of Yahoo’s remains, which will include about $7 billion in cash and lucrative stakes in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and Yahoo Japan.

Altaba will be responsible for all costs stemming from shareholder lawsuits and a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into how Yahoo handled the disclosure of the massive hacks. Verizon and Altaba will split costs from all other hack-related lawsuits and government investigations.

This agreement “provides protections for both sides” and should help the deal close by the end of June, Marni Walden, Verizon’s head of product innovation and new businesses, said in a statement. Yahoo shareholders have to approve it.

Avoiding an even larger reduction in the deal value represents a small victory for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who had already been under fire on Wall Street for her inability to turn around the company and then for the humiliating security lapses that came under her watch.

“Yahoo had to get this deal done. There is no better fit for them than Verizon,” said Doug Melsheimer, managing director for Bulger Partners, an investment banking firm specializing in technology.

Mayer, 41, is widely expected to step down after Verizon takes over, although she hasn’t spelled out her plans definitively. If she departs, Mayer will leave with a severance package that was valued at $44 million last summer. The package is probably worth even more now because it primarily consists of Yahoo stock, which has risen by nearly 20 percent since last summer.

Yahoo shares rose 40 cents to close at $45.50 while Verizon’s stock added 24 cents to finish at $49.43.

Verizon’s willingness to accept some of the lingering risks from Yahoo’s security breaches underscores the wireless carrier’s desire to become a bigger player in the digital advertising market. Google and Facebook currently dominate, but Verizon believes there’s room to grow.

Because most people already have smartphones, wireless carriers such as Verizon have turned to price cuts and promotions to lure customers from each other. Under pressure, Verizon even restored unlimited data plans this month, robbing it of revenue from monster-size data plans.

Instead, Verizon is trying to make money off the hours people spend gazing at their phones. It bought AOL for $4.4 billion in 2015 for its advertising technology. Verizon now wants to bolster that with Yahoo’s technology, as well as its many users and popular websites devoted to sports, finance, entertainment and news.

“It has made sense for AOL and Yahoo to be combined for a very long time,” Melsheimer said. “It has just been a very long route getting there.”

Arbel reported from New York. AP Business Writer Damian Troise in New York contributed to this story.

]]> 0 is taking a $350 million hit on its previously announced $4.8 billion sale to Verizon in a concession for security lapses that exposed personal information stored in more than a billion Yahoo user accounts.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 18:56:05 +0000
Canadian company envisions Maine as site for biorefinery Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 A Canadian company that turns leftover wood from forestry operations into heating fuel has begun supplying Bates College in Lewiston and is seeking enough customers to build a production facility in Maine.

Ensyn Corp. is ramping up production of a proprietary biofuel it has made for more than 25 years at a small facility in Renfrew, Ontario.

Now the company, along with private partners and the governments of Canada and Quebec, is building a $78 million plant at Port-Cartier, Quebec. The Cote Nord facility is designed to produce 10.5 million gallons of oil a year from trees when it comes on line later this year to supply customers in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. Sales are aimed at large institutions, such as universities, state buildings and hospitals, that want to reduce the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide they emit.

Biorefineries can create new markets for sustainable forestry, reduce fossil fuel dependence and support hundreds of jobs in the woods, in trucking and for plant operations.

“Maine would be an ideal place to locate a facility,” Lee Torrens, president of the subsidiary Ensyn Fuels Inc., told the Portland Press Herald.

Torrens declined to name specific companies or institutions, but said his company had been in contact with colleges, state officials and large woodland owners in Maine. Ensyn also has a $70 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a 20 million-gallon plant in Georgia’s Dooley County.

It sees the potential to build a biorefinery in Maine similar to the one planned in Georgia, Torrens said, if it can sign enough long-term contracts to total 7 million gallons or so of annual demand. Such a plant would need 400 tons a day of branches, limbs and low-grade wood from timber harvesting and processing operations, such as sawmills.


The company’s interest comes as five paper mills have closed in the past three years, removing thousands of jobs and an estimated $1.3 billion from the state’s economy. That has created a surplus of wood and a broad selection of industrial sites in rural Maine. These factors are starting to attract investors.

Currently, a group of energy developers associated with Stored Solar LLC, a company that restarted two idle wood-fired power plants in Jonesboro and West Enfield, is trying to market Maine’s obsolete biomass plants and shuttered paper mills. They are rebranding these sites as world-class assets that can become testing grounds for a new manufacturing economy based on sustainably harvested wood. Developers envision bioenergy parks, where all parts of a tree are used to make electricity, fuel, food, material and other things, eventually replacing similar products made from petroleum.

Ensyn has experience making fuel, food ingredients and chemicals at its Ontario plant. Since 2014, it also has been selling its oil substitute, which it calls Renewable Fuel Oil, or RFO, to the district heating plant in Youngstown, Ohio, and Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire.

“We have a technology that works,” Torrens said. “It’s not experimental.”

The fuel currently is cost-competitive with natural gas and heating oil, he said, with the aid of a federal subsidy meant to reduce petroleum dependence. Called the Renewable Fuel Standard program, it’s run by the Environmental Protection Agency and has strong political support in the Midwest, where it drives a corn-based ethanol industry. It’s unclear how the subsidy might change under the Trump administration.

For now, with petroleum prices low, the cost of the tree-derived oil for Memorial Hospital is just about even with heating oil, said Doug Walrath, the facilities manager.

This is the third winter that the 25-bed health care center is burning the fuel. It has two boilers and is using the biofuel in one converted unit to meet 75 percent of the hospital’s heating needs.

Performance is good, Walrath said, and Ensyn has been responsive in troubleshooting early problems. The fuel is proving less expensive than converting the heating system to wood chips, which is what the hospital had been considering.


Bates College was looking into wood chips two years ago when John Rasmussen, the school’s energy director, was contacted by Ensyn. He ultimately determined the college could achieve similar climate-change emissions reductions with the liquid fuel, for far less money.

The college had three boilers that can burn natural gas or oil. Last year, the college spent $1.1 million to convert one unit from gas to burn biofuel and install a 20,000-gallon tank next to the campus steam plant. In mid-January, the new boiler began using biofuel. So far, so good, Rasmussen said during a recent tour.

“They’ve been burning this stuff for 25 years, so there shouldn’t be many surprises,” he said.

Bates warms just over 1 million square feet of interior space on its main campus, and Rasmussen expects to burn 700,000 gallons of biofuel this winter. On average, that will satisfy 70 percent of the heating demand.

Rasmussen declined to discuss the school’s seven-year supply contract, but said he expects the investment to pay for itself within five years. He may also consider converting a second boiler.

A limiting factor now is that the fuel is being trucked from Ontario, an eight-hour delivery drive required almost every day during the winter. The Cote Nord plant in Quebec is even farther away.

So Rasmussen is hoping that enough Maine institutions make the choice he made, to give Ensyn a critical mass of volume to site a plant in the state. He said he has been in contact with colleagues at Gould Academy in Bethel and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, who are studying Ensyn’s biofuel option.

“We want that plant right here in Maine,” he said.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

Twitter: TuxTurkel

]]> 0 exhaust rises from a smokestack at Bates College in Lewiston. The school is using wood-derived fuel from Ensyn Corp. in Canada to heat 70 percent of campus buildings. Delivery trucks fill its 20,000-gallon fuel tank five or six times a week.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 11:51:25 +0000
On the Job: Meteorologist makes weather her business Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Neither rain nor snow nor sleet can keep Margaret Curtis from her job: Weather is her job. Curtis is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray.

Margaret Curtis is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

For six years, the Westbrook resident has been tracking and forecasting nor’easters, thunderstorms and the occasional tropical weather event from her workstation at the NWS station off Intervale Road. Curtis has been a meteorologist for 10 years.

She earned her undergrad degree in atmospheric science at McGill University in Montreal, then her master’s in meteorology at the University of Utah. For Curtis, studying weather is a way to bridge her interests.

“I always liked being outside, and I liked science,” she said. “Meteorology is the place in between.”

“I always liked being outside, and I liked science,” says Margaret Curtis of Westbrook. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In Gray, Curtis and her fellow forecasters cover New Hampshire, western Maine and the coastal waters. Twice a day, they launch weather balloons to collect data. The field is a mix of art and science, Curtis said, and that means she and other forecasters aren’t always right.

“It doesn’t bother me if you get mad because we got it wrong as long as you call up and thank us when we get it right,” she joked. And that’s a satisfying experience, she said. “It’s kind of like predicting the future, which is pretty cool.”

]]> 0, ME - FEBRUARY 17: On the Job: Margaret Curtis, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, inflates a weather balloon with helium. Balloons are launched from NWS sites across the country twice daily to measure temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure and more. (Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:11:29 +0000
As Mainers’ wages rise, small businesses seek strategies for keeping pace Tue, 21 Feb 2017 04:12:01 +0000 Soon after Mainers voted last fall to approve a referendum to raise the minimum hourly wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017, a sign appeared on the counter at Selah Tea Cafe on Main Street in Waterville.

“The new minimum wage law does affect us at Selah Tea Cafe. I anticipate the only change to mitigate the mandatory increase in expense will be price changes to our menu items,” it read.

The small downtown eatery, which serves tea, coffee and food, raised its prices in phases, culminating in an across-the-board increase of 7 percent – plus 1 percent for other expenses.

Bobby McGee, who owns Selah Tea along with his wife, Rachel, said he’s not against increasing the minimum wage but has to make changes somewhere in his business to make ends meet.

“I feel like my employees could live comfortably around $15 an hour or so,” Bobby McGee said, but added that he isn’t making enough revenue to pay that. “What I would like to do and what I can do, unfortunately, are two different things.”

Other locally owned businesses in Maine are facing the same predicament: How do they make up for a 20 percent increase in wage expenses while preparing for the larger increase coming by 2020?

The initiative passed by voters will raise the minimum wage by $1 every year after the initial hike until it reaches $12 in 2020, when annual raises will be doled out based on cost-of-living increases. It also will raise the wage for service workers who receive tips from $3.75 to $5 in 2017, with annual $1 increases until it reaches $12 by 2024, a plan that some worry will stop customers from tipping servers.

Critics say the wage is increasing too quickly and that the elimination of the tip credit will hurt servers’ earnings rather than help them. Supporters say those fears are unwarranted, and the increase already is helping the workers who hadn’t seen a raise in eight years.

Bobby and Rachel McGee pose Thursday at their restaurant, Selah Tea Cafe, in Waterville. Bobby McGee says their staff deserves a living wage, but the minimum wage increase has forced them to raise their prices. Staff photo by David Leaming

“What we have seen is an immediate boost to a lot of paychecks,” said Mike Tipping, communications director for Mainers for Fair Wages. “When you put money in the pockets of people who are just scraping by, … they’re going to spend it locally.”

Putting the wage increase together with the tax increases associated with it, McGee at Selah Tea figured out how much his expenses were going to increase – and what he would have to change to keep up.

McGee wasn’t against an increase in the minimum wage, but like others, he thinks the proposal was too much, too soon.

“I’m excited that the staff makes more money,” he said. “I felt it was definitely too aggressive, too fast; but at the same time, there’s no time like the present.”

McGee employs 12 people, four of whom were making $7.75 to $8.50 an hour before the increase took effect. The rest were making $9 to $11 an hour.

He increased everyone’s wages Jan. 1 to maintain the pay scale, he said, and is now nervous about the coming years and subsequent increases. If he can’t grow the business, McGee said, how will he offset those expenses?


Joe Giardello, the owner of Jorgensen’s Cafe on Main Street in Waterville, said the first increase won’t really affect his business. Of his 15 employees, two were affected by the new law – their wages increased by 50 cents per hour.

Giardello paid his employees $8.50 to $14 per hour, he said, and he recently started an incentive program to give regular $1 raises based on sales.

At this point, he’s not planning to raise prices. Instead he’s looking at other ways he can make up the difference, such as staffing more efficiently and choosing different vendors to lower his cost of goods, which always has been “a little high.” But as the minimum wage continues to increase, he’ll continue to review the business’s finances. “I’m trying to see how it will impact things,” Giardello said.

On average, he’s able to pay $2 more than the minimum wage, but he said he’s not sure he’ll be able to do so once the minimum is $12.

Waitress Bonnie Hollander checks a table at the Liberal Cup. Servers’ base pay will rise to $12 an hour by 2024, but some fear tips will decrease as a result. Staff photo by David Leaming

Still, Giardello said he’s in favor of the increase. “I believe people should get a living wage,” he said. “My primary concern is the implementation of it over a four-year period, where it is jumping roughly $4.50 over a four-year time frame.” “This is the first wage increase in eight years, and prices at businesses have gone up every year,” Tipping said.

Data don’t show that paying low-paid workers more causes a significant price increase, he said, but the difference in the workers’ lives is “huge.”

Kathy Rondone, 73, of Augusta said she started working a minimum wage job with Spectrum Generations, a federally funded organization, because Social Security benefits didn’t cover her costs. Her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is in the Maine Veterans’ Home.

Before, Rondone had to choose between cutting her food and gas expenses for weeks or not getting her car fixed. “I went for weeks with it leaking power steering fluid,” she said.


Now she makes an extra $120 each month, which has helped her afford new windshield wipers when snowstorms hit, as well as shots for her dog.

“To most people, ($120) is nothing. It’s not a big deal,” she said. “To me it’s a big deal. It’s taken a load off my shoulders emotionally, stress-wise.”

Rondone said the extra money she makes goes back into the community – her local mechanic, veterinarian and pharmacy.

While she’s worried about what will happen to Social Security and Medicare as well as dealing with recent family tragedies, this $1.50 increase has been “a little bright spot” for her.

McGinley Jones said the benefits a higher wage provides to people in communities around Maine, such as Rondone, are what people should focus on.

“There’s a lot of fear around this issue … but it’s not actually based in fact,” she said.

Jones owns two businesses in Lubec with her husband, Gale White. They’ve owned the Sunrise Cafe and Bakery for four years and the Lubec Brewing Co. and Taproom for nearly two, and servers at both are paid $10 per hour.

A living wage in Washington County is $9.96 per hour, Jones said, and after running the numbers themselves, they realized no one could live on less than $10 per hour. Adding all basic monthly costs up for the winter months, Jones said there’s only about $30 left over with a $10 hourly wage, but their servers make tips on top of that.

“I used to be a server, and it’s an incredibly difficult job, because your pay is directly based on the person you’re serving,” she said. “To have someone’s mood or their whim or their personality dictate someone’s pay isn’t right.”

It’s important to Jones and White that they pay their employees the living wage, especially since they live in such a small community, she said. While they could make more money paying the subminimum wage, they choose not to, she said, and they’re still operating in the black.

“Our business model is set with the precedent that if we take care of our employees and take care of our customers, then the money we need to exist will come, and that’s proven to be true,” she said, adding later, “If you have a sandwich and your friend’s hungry, you give them half, right?”

Jones also said their servers still get tipped normally, even though their small community knows they’re paid a fair wage.

“If it’s possible to do this in Lubec, it’s possible to do this anywhere,” Jones said.

Tipping points to states that don’t have a separate minimum wage for servers but still have thriving restaurants, such as Minnesota, California and Montana. Soon, he said, Maine will have data on how the change so far is playing out.

As of May 2015, the Bureau for Labor Statistics said Maine servers’ median hourly wage with tips was $9.06. The change is also gradual, which is why more than 60 restaurants and 600 small businesses in the state endorsed the referendum, Tipping said. However, some say the stakes are higher for servers, so they’re pushing to change the legislation.

Some people in the industry disagree with bureau’s estimate and say that servers make much more than $9 an hour with tips. When they get a $12 minimum wage, some are afraid patrons no longer will feel obligated to leave tips, which will hurt their incomes.


Jarron Conti, 27, a server at Bucks Naked BBQ in Freeport, said that over time the effect will be “detrimental” to servers. He estimates that he makes about $25 per hour with tips.

“That’s what I live off of. That’s how I pay my mortgage. That’s how I pay my car payments,” said Conti, who also works another job full time, though he said he makes more serving.

Conti also said he’s noticed a small dip in his tips over the past few weeks. While he usually makes about 20 percent, lately it’s closer to 18 percent.

“Anybody in the restaurant industry, especially a tipped server, isn’t into this,” said Casey Hynes, front-of-house manager at The Liberal Cup, a restaurant and microbrewery pub in Hallowell.

While Hynes wouldn’t say how much his 20 servers make per hour with tips, he did say that they make “more than any other member of the staff.” “There’s not a server out there that’s any good that’s making $7.50 an hour,” he said.

Hynes said the increase in the servers’ minimum wage means the business has less money to spend on non-servers – such as the chefs – which strikes him as “a little backwards.” The restaurant hasn’t raised prices to deal with the increase, Hynes said, but “nothing’s off the table.”

Greg Dugal, director of governmental affairs for the Maine Restaurant Association, said that while the association wasn’t against a minimum wage increase, it was against the elimination of the tip credit — the amount between what a server is paid and the minimum wage that should be covered by tips. “It just increases the cost of business for small restaurants,” Dugal said.

Madeline St. Amour can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

]]> 0 Leonard, left, and Leo Fecteau chat with front-of-house manager Casey Hynes Wednesday at the Liberal Cup in Hallowell. Hynes says the wage hike has left the pub with less money to pay non-servers.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 11:55:01 +0000
Global stocks move mostly higher Tue, 21 Feb 2017 01:34:56 +0000 HONG KONG — Global stocks mostly rose Monday, although Wall Street remained closed for the holiday, as investors awaited key reports this week, including economic data, corporate earnings and minutes from the Federal Reserve’s last meeting.

In Europe, Germany’s DAX gained 0.6 percent to 11,827.62 and Britain’s FTSE 100 was flat at 7,299.86. France’s CAC 40 shed 0.1 percent to 4,864.99. Greek bonds rose after eurozone finance ministers moved a step closer to freeing up more rescue loans for the country.

U.S. markets set record highs on Friday but remained closed for trading Monday for Presidents Day.

Markets await the Federal Reserve’s release Wednesday of minutes from its January policy meeting, which might provide new insight in the U.S. central bank’s views on interest rates. Last week, Fed chief Janet Yellen indicated the Fed is likely to speed up the pace of its interest rate rises if the job market remains healthy and inflation stays on track. Also due this week: a German business confidence index on Tuesday, U.S. new home sales on Friday and earnings from big companies such as British bank HSBC.

Shares in consumer goods giant Unilever fell 5.2 percent after rival Kraft Heinz said it was dropping its $143 billion offer. Unilever, which has brands like Lipton, Dove and Hellman’s, had rejected the bid as too low and its shares had jumped 14 percent on Friday.

Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index edged up 0.1 percent to close at 19,251.08 and South Korea’s Kospi advanced 0.2 percent to end at 2,084.39. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 0.5 percent to 24,146.08 and the Shanghai Composite Index rose 1.2 percent to 3,239.96.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil added 17 cents to $53.57 a barrel in electronic trading.

]]> 0 Mon, 20 Feb 2017 20:50:24 +0000
Burger King might buy out Popeyes chain Tue, 21 Feb 2017 00:55:03 +0000 Restaurant Brands International Inc., the owner of Burger King, is in advanced talks with Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. about a takeover of the fried-chicken chain, according to people familiar with the matter.

Negotiations between the companies are ongoing, and a transaction could be announced as early as this week, said the people, who asked not to be identified as the details aren’t public. Talks could still fall apart, the people said. Popeyes has a market value of about $1.37 billion, while Restaurant Brands is worth $25 billion.

The companies held talks in the summer but were unable to reach an agreement at the time, the people said. Burger King renewed its interest in Popeyes late last week and made an offer that was mainly cash, one of the people said. The fried-chicken chain then contacted possible counter bidders over the weekend, however no competitive offer materialized, the person said.

A spokeswoman for Popeyes declined to comment. A representative for Restaurant Brands didn’t immediately respond to a request outside of regular business hours.

Popeyes, based in Atlanta, can trace its roots back to a single fried-chicken shop opened in New Orleans in 1972. It operated and franchised more than 2,600 restaurants in the U.S. and 26 other countries as of Oct. 2.

]]> 0 Mon, 20 Feb 2017 20:01:20 +0000
Self-driving cars: A moral dilemma comes to the forefront Tue, 21 Feb 2017 00:32:48 +0000 How many people could self-driving cars kill before we would no longer tolerate them?

This once-hypothetical question is now taking on greater urgency, particularly among policymakers in Washington. The promise of autonomous vehicles is that they will make our roads safer and more efficient, but no technology is without its shortcomings and unintended consequences – in this instance, potentially fatal consequences.

“What if we can build a car that’s 10 times as safe, which means 3,500 people die on the roads each year. Would we accept that?” asks John Hanson, a spokesman for the Toyota Research Institute, which is developing the automaker’s self-driving technology.

“A lot of people say, ‘If I could save one life it would be worth it.’ (In practice), though, we don’t think that would be acceptable,” Hanson said.

Members of Congress are beginning to consider legislation that enables the broader adoption of self-driving technology without compromising safety. At a House subcommittee hearing last week, for example, lawmakers and industry leaders alike grappled with the question of whether machines need only drive better than humans to win our trust.

More than 35,000 people were killed in car collisions in the United States in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency estimates that 94 percent of those wrecks were the result of human error and poor decision-making, including speeding and impaired driving.

Self-driving enthusiasts assert that the technology could make those deaths a misfortune of the past. But humans are not entirely rational when it comes to fear-based decision-making. It’s the reason people are afraid of shark attacks or plane crashes, when the odds of either event are exceptionally low.

Harvard University professor Calestous Juma draws a parallel between self-driving cars and home refrigerators, which gained popularity in U.S. households in the 1920s and 30s. Although scientists understood that cold storage could cut down on food-borne illnesses, reports of refrigeration equipment catching fire or leaking toxic gas made the public wary.

Americans eventually adopted the now-ubiquitous household appliance thanks in large part to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which advocated for the health benefits of refrigeration and educated against unfounded concerns about the technology’s safety, Juma writes in his book “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.”

People are also more inclined to forgive mistakes made by humans than machines, Gill Pratt, chief executive of the Toyota Research Institute, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week.

“The artificial intelligence systems on which autonomous vehicle technology will depend are presently and unavoidably imperfect,” Pratt told lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing. “So, the question is, ‘how safe is safe enough’ for this technology to be deployed?”

The answer to questions about safety might come down to how much we trust self-driving cars, regardless of how many lives they can save, said Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab who has studied the social dilemmas presented by autonomous vehicles.. For example, if autonomous vehicles save the lives of thousands of motorists but cause fatalities of cyclists and pedestrians to increase, the public’s trust in the technology is likely to erode.

“If they’re not comfortable with the trade-offs that cars are making, then we risk people losing faith in the system and perhaps not adopting the technology,” Rahwan said.

]]> 0 Mon, 20 Feb 2017 19:44:16 +0000
Atlanta, other cities consider test tracks for self-driving cars Tue, 21 Feb 2017 00:25:09 +0000 ATLANTA — Self-driving vehicles could begin tooling down a bustling Atlanta street full of cars, buses, bicyclists and college students, as the city vies with other communities nationwide to test the emerging technology.

Atlanta would become one of the largest urban areas for testing self-driving vehicles if plans come together for a demonstration as early as September.

Nationwide, 10 sites were designated last month as “proving grounds” for automated vehicles by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

They include North Carolina turnpikes, the eastern Iowa prairie and a Michigan site where World War II bombing aircraft were produced in a factory built by automobile pioneer Henry Ford. Atlanta isn’t on the list, but city officials nevertheless hope to make an impact.

Backers of driverless cars say they could be part of a broader effort to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, something President Trump has pledged to do. As roads and highways are rebuilt, “we think it would be very, very wise to build modern infrastructure with 21st-century capability in mind,” said Paul Brubaker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Transportation Innovation.

Self-driving vehicles, he said, “should be a national priority.”

The Trump administration hasn’t revealed its approach to the technology, but two U.S. senators this month announced a bipartisan effort to help speed deployment of the vehicles on the nation’s roads. Republican John Thune of South Dakota and Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan said they’re considering legislation that “clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology.”

Atlanta has sought proposals from companies for a demonstration of an autonomous vehicle on North Avenue later this year, city documents show.

The street, which connects the Georgia Institute of Technology campus to some of the South’s tallest skyscrapers, would be among the busiest urban environments yet for such testing.

In Atlanta, city officials say a key goal is to create optimal conditions on North Avenue for such vehicles to operate.

The goal of September’s demonstration is to show how such a vehicle would navigate in real-world traffic, though a driver will be inside and can take the controls if needed, said Faye DiMassimo, an Atlanta official involved in the North Avenue project.

“We still think that autonomous vehicles are sort of ‘The Jetsons,’ right?” DiMassimo said. “When you looked at all the information, you realize not only is this here and now, this has been in development for quite some time.”

North Avenue would first be equipped with devices and sensors, enabling vehicles to communicate with traffic signals and warning self-driving cars of red lights or treacherous conditions such as snow or ice, the city documents show.

Cameras would provide live video of traffic, and computers would analyze data on road conditions, concerts or other events likely to clog streets.

Security is a key concern, however.

“Imagine if these vehicles were hacked. Imagine if the system that controls them were hacked,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

“I don’t think our society is going to want a robot glitch or a software hack to be responsible for mass deaths,” he said. “If we sanction robots controlling these vehicles without really knowing the risks, I think the technology will go under when the first major catastrophe befalls us.”

Court’s group worked with California transportation officials as they developed rules for testing vehicles developed by Google and other companies. Now, Court and others are watching to see how often human drivers must take over to prevent accidents as vehicles are tested in California.

Tying together massive amounts of data from so many sources “will pose myriad security challenges,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged in a report last year on a related initiative to transform Atlanta into a “smart city.” Researchers at Georgia Tech, Reed said, will be key to that effort.

Public acceptance of the vehicles is among the main challenges to their widespread use on city streets and highways, Brubaker said.

He and others see Atlanta as a logical base for the emerging industry.

Atlanta’s notorious traffic congestion could lead residents to welcome such vehicles, Brubaker said.

“In any city that has that level of congestion, people have a relatively open mind to embracing technology solutions that will improve the traffic flow,” Brubaker said.

However, critics say the cars are not yet able to safely navigate clogged streets with traditional cars and pedestrians.

“The technology really is not ready to be used on urban streets, unless they are going to be cleared of human drivers and dedicated strictly to autonomous vehicles,” Court said.

“The real problem is these technologies tend to fail when they’re around pedestrians, cyclists, human drivers,” Court said. The key obstacle, he said: “human behavior is really unpredictable.”

At one North Avenue intersection near Georgia Tech’s football stadium, “students tend to jaywalk, so it can get a little bit messy over there,” said Georgia Tech student Maura Currie, 19. She called it “a hectic stretch of road.”

]]> 0 and cars move along a busy section of North Avenue near the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. This area might be a proving ground for driverless cars soon.Mon, 20 Feb 2017 19:47:59 +0000
Fish Maine 2017 app, developed by West Gardiner man, is now free Mon, 20 Feb 2017 21:26:09 +0000 Some people do crossword puzzles for a hobby; Ron Cote builds apps.

A year ago, the West Gardiner man launched his first app, Fish Maine, which contains all the state’s fishing regulations.

Since then, he has released a Hunt Maine app, and just recently an update for the fishing app, Fish Maine 2017.

West Gardiner resident Ron Cote, shown in March 16, 2016, at Togus Pond in Augusta, has updated his fishing regulations smartphone app and now is offering it free. Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

For Cote, who is releasing the apps through his limited liability corporation, Northeast Logic, building the programs for mobile devices such as smartphones is like solving a puzzle. The information comes from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and it’s organized so that fishing enthusiasts can find what regulations apply to where they are, thanks to their GPS.

“This one will have directions to boat launches,” Cote said. “That’s new.”

Also new this year is the price: It’s free.

In the world of app development, developers can make money initially two ways. They can sell the app via Google Play or the App Store, or they can make it free and incorporate advertising on the site to earn some revenue.

Cote, who has a full-time job with the Maine Department of Transportation, originally planned an ad-free app, but he said he got a call from someone asking to advertise, and that’s how it started.

Scott Snell, a fishing guide who, with his wife, Alison, runs Wilsons on Moosehead Lake, a lodging and guide business in Greenville Junction, said he mentioned advertising to Cote last year.

“We were in the booth next to him at the sportsmen’s show,” Snell said. When he saw how the app works, he said he was blown away.

Snell said his guests travel from all over the East Coast to fish in Maine, where they may not be familiar with the local landmarks and place names.

“If I send them to a trout pond and they go to the wrong one, it’s easy to do, and they could be fishing illegally,” he said.

In Piscataquis County, for instance, there are three Notch Ponds.

While Snell acknowledged the IF&W book is the official source of fishing regulations, he said it ought to come with a map.

“Not every fisherman is really good with trying to take the (’Maine Atlas and) Gazetteer’ and figuring out which Indian Pond, Great Pond or Long Pond they are going to,” he said.

Cote said he just about broke even when he charged for the app, but it wasn’t about the money. He developed the app because he didn’t want to run afoul of fishing regulations himself, or risk heading out without the regulation book.

“If we give it away, and did some advertising, then we could break even and even more people could use it,” he said.

So far he’s taken ads from the Maine Guides, Wilsons and a fish taxidermist. He opted for businesses that are relevant to the fishing crowd.

Late last year, Cote also released Hunt Maine, an app that provides handy smartphone access to Maine’s hunting regulations. It currently costs $3, but Cote plans to make that one free, too.

Cote said he may branch out to other apps.

“People have asked me about building different things, like an app to show cemetery locations where someone is buried,” he said. “It can be done. I have also been thinking about snowmobile trail apps. There’s some demand for some of that stuff out there, but I want to get (the fishing app) a little more refined.”

When Cote debuted the app last year, IF&W spokesman Mark Latti said the department’s regulation book is the only definitive source of regulations because it’s filed with the Maine secretary of state’s office annually, as required by law. Latti confirmed Friday that that’s still the department’s stance.

For his part, Cote is working on making the app a little more user-friendly by having depth information come up in lake search results. That will probably be done in March.

For now, the updated app is available in Google Play for Android phones, and it will come to the App Store for iPhones soon.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

]]> 0 Gardiner resident Ron Cote, shown in March 16, 2016, at Togus Pond in Augusta, has updated his fishing regulations smartphone app and now is offering it free.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:21:07 +0000
Scallop fishing rules pit big boats against small boats Mon, 20 Feb 2017 19:12:33 +0000 A disagreement over the right to fish for scallops off New England is pitting small boats against big ones in one of the most lucrative fisheries in the U.S.

Maine fishermen caught more than 450,000 pounds of scallops last year, the third-highest catch since 2001. Prices per pound surged to a record high this year.

The federal government maintains different rules for the small- and big-boat scallop fisheries, though they work some of the same areas. Small-boat fishermen say the conflict has arisen in the northern Gulf of Maine, a critically important fishing area stretching roughly from Boston to the border of Maine and Canada.

At issue is the fact that the northern Gulf of Maine is fertile ground for scallops right now, and rules allow the bigger boats to harvest more of them. The smaller boats have a possession limit of 200 pounds, while the largest boats have no such limit, because they are regulated instead by a limited number of days at sea.

Smaller boat fishermen said the bigger boats have been gobbling up the scallops in one of the most important areas where they fish.

Without changes, the current arrangement could “wipe out a resource that would sustain a small boat fishery for years and years and years,” said Kristan Porter, a small-boat fisherman in the area who sits on a federal scallop advisory panel.

Federal regulators have identified solving the problem as a key goal in the U.S. sea scallop fishery, which has been worth more than $400 million every year since 2010. Scallops are also one of the priciest kinds of seafood that is familiar to many consumers, who often pay more than $20 per pound for them.

Mary Beth Tooley, the chair of a federal scallop committee, also works in government affairs for O’Hara Corp., a major player in the big-boat fishery. The big and small boats can coexist, she said, and regulators will work to make it happen.

“There’s a perspective that this is a battle – we need to go to war with these big boats,” she said, adding, “I don’t think that’s necessary.”

The scuffle has attracted the attention of Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group based in New England. The group is advocating for the playing field to be leveled for both groups of boats, said Peter Shelley, an attorney with the foundation.

“It’s an inequity that could be corrected very easily and no one wants to do it,” Shelley said. “I just find that to be offensive with a public resource.”

The U.S. scallop fishery’s most important state is Massachusetts, with New Bedford serving as the home base. They’re also brought to shore in other states from Maine to Virginia, with the second-largest amount of shellfish coming ashore in New Jersey.

]]> 0 meat is shucked at sea off Harpswell, Maine, in this 2011 photo. A disagreement over the right to fish for scallops off New England is pitting small boats against big ones in the scallop-rich northern Gulf of Maine.Tue, 21 Feb 2017 11:02:27 +0000
Eimskip shipping company adding 4 more port calls to Portland this year Mon, 20 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Icelandic shipping company Eimskip will add four trips to Portland this year – a 13 percent increase in port calls over 2016 – continuing growth at Maine’s sole container terminal.

Eimskip has increased port calls to Portland from 26 in 2013 to 35 planned for this year. The increased visits are being driven by a 20 percent growth in shipping volume, said Larus Isfeld, managing director of Eimskip USA. Portland is the only U.S. port Eimskip ships to directly.

“We have been growing every year since we came here,” Isfeld said. The company’s goal is to have weekly calls to Portland by 2020 and it has been growing its shipping volume over time to meet that goal, he said.

Weekly service is regarded as the minimum required to serve inventory management strategies used by many companies today. If weekly service can be established, it will make Portland a more attractive port for manufacturers and distributors with business interests in northern Europe.

Moving to a weekly shipping schedule will also help the company better match the needs of its customers, Isfeld added.

“Everybody is running their production and delivery schedules with the weekly schedule,” he said.

The port has seen sustained growth since 2009, when the value of its exports was pegged at $9.3 million. In 2015, that value was $106.7 million, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. Tonnage has also increased, from 12,746 tons in 2009 to 35,277 tons in 2015, and the number of containers traveling through the port has soared, from roughly 3,400 in 2013 to 11,000 in 2016.

The additional trips are a significant increase for a small port like Portland, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority. More shipments indicate Eimskip’s confidence in the growing Portland connection to international shipping lanes and the successful completion of a cold-storage warehouse planned for the waterfront, Henshaw said. “An increase in capacity would obviously represent an increase in business, the fact that they continue to grow in the port of Portland is a good sign,” he said.

Iceland imports a wide variety of commodities, including construction materials, food, household goods and automobiles. Eimskip ships those commodities and Maine products like seafood, blueberries and potatoes. The company specializes in refrigerated shipping and primarily carries frozen fish to the U.S.


Eimskip plans to change its sailing schedule at the end of February, the company said on its website. With the schedule changes to Portland and elsewhere and an additional container vessel, Eimskip expects to increase its capacity to and from North America by 11 percent and to and from Europe by 7 percent.

Eimskip’s green line serves Portland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Argentia, Newfoundland. The company intends to add a new shipping route, called the red line, to serve Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Poland with two vessels.

To help grow the port and support Eimskip’s operations, Portland city officials and the port authority are pushing for a cold-storage warehouse at the waterfront. The state has contracted with cold-storage company Americold to build the warehouse, but plans have been opposed by neighbors who don’t want the city to approve a zoning change that would increase the height limit in the area and allow a 68-foot-tall building. Supporters of the project say cold storage is critical to make Portland competitive with bigger ports and will help grow exports from the state’s food economy.

Cold storage is strategically important for Eimskip’s growth and necessary to sustain shipping volume through Portland, Isfeld said.

“It is a very integral part of our logistics that are focused on moving freight and refrigerated cargo,” he said. “We believe that there is a majority in the community that wants the cold storage to happen. The opposition is from a very small portion of the neighborhood next to the building.”

Isfeld added: “It is important for the whole economy of Maine, creating this strategic warehouse to increase freight. It is so badly needed here in Maine.”

In 2013, Eimskip selected Portland as its North American headquarters and made the city its only port of call in the U.S. Since 2009, there has been significant investment in Portland’s International Marine Terminal, including a waterfront rail link for freight shipments, an expansion of the trucking yard and improvements to keep refrigerated cargo cold. Last summer the state was approved for a federal grant to help pay for a $15.5 million project to double the amount of cargo it can move through the terminal.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

]]> 0 loads containers Thursday on a ship at the International Marine Terminal in Portland.Mon, 20 Feb 2017 08:52:15 +0000
Kraft Heinz Co. withdraws offer for Unilever Sun, 19 Feb 2017 23:36:48 +0000 Kraft Heinz Co. withdrew its $143 billion bid for Unilever two days after the approach became public, citing the Anglo-Dutch target’s reluctance to engage in discussions.

“Kraft Heinz’s interest was made public at an extremely early stage,” spokesman Michael Mullen said Sunday. “Our intention was to proceed on a friendly basis, but it was made clear Unilever did not wish to pursue a transaction. It is best to step away early so both companies can focus on their own independent plans to generate value.”

The decision to withdraw the offer came after 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which together own about half of Kraft Heinz, decided that Unilever’s negative response made a friendly transaction impossible, people with knowledge of the situation said. Both also believed that a protracted war of words wasn’t in the best interest of Kraft Heinz and would risk souring future deal opportunities, the people said.

Unilever last week rejected a $50-a-share buyout offer by Kraft Heinz, saying the proposal “fundamentally undervalues” the household-products maker. Its management fretted behind the scenes about the cost-cutting model at Kraft, which sells products like Velveeta and Jell-O, and its lack of vision for cultivating brands, people familiar with the situation said.

Shares of Unilever jumped 13 percent to close Friday at a record 44.80 euros, or about $47.52, in Amsterdam. Kraft Heinz, based in Pittsburgh and Chicago, climbed 11 percent to a record in New York trading.

Kraft’s overture followed a 2.5 percent decline for Unilever’s stock in 2016, its worst annual performance since 2008.

]]> 0 Sun, 19 Feb 2017 19:17:03 +0000
Waterville, Rockland show gains that historic theaters can bring Sun, 19 Feb 2017 19:42:15 +0000 AUGUSTA — For the supporters of the Colonial Theatre, the vision is so clear.

In 27 months or so, the restored historic theater with a new annex at the north end of Augusta’s historic downtown will offer space for a variety of performances, events and community uses along with an art gallery and restaurant that will raise the profile of the arts in the capital region.

That’s a lot of weight for one project to carry, but Richard Parkhurst, who is heading the redevelopment efforts, strongly believes it can happen, it should happen and it will happen.

“It’s essential,” Augusta Mayor David Rollins said. “It’s absolutely essential to the vitality of the city.”

As it now stands, the Colonial Theatre is a brick shell with a new roof enclosing a space whose distinguishing features include a stage, a cantilevered balcony and a big hole in the floor.

As ambitious as the redevelopment plans are, they are not unique.

Across the United States, communities have backed efforts to renovate and revitalize their historic theaters.

“It creates economic development and it drives business,” said Ken Stein, president and chief executive officer of the League of Historic American Theatres. “But I think most people, when they are talking about show business, focus on the show and forget the business.”

What a theater is uniquely able to do, Stein said from his office in Austin, Texas, is draw people to a destination and prompt them to spend money.

The League of Historic American Theaters is a nonprofit that works to sustain historic theaters in the United States and Canada and offers training and resources to make historic theaters sustainable businesses.

“People are making a choice and making plans around a choice,” Stein said. “They’re paying for a meal, parking, baby sitters and going shopping to dress up maybe. When we do economic impact studies on theaters, we take that into account.”

Stein saw it when he was working to revive a historic theater in Austin. He and his staff watched as the plywood came off the windows of neighborhood shops and restaurants start to move in and partner with the theater for events. “It happens again and again,” he said, and it doesn’t matter whether the theater produces its own shows or hosts music and comedy or shows movies.

Stein has developed, with the help of a model by Americans for the Arts, a snapshot of the effect of historic theaters. A single historic theater in a city with a population of less than 50,000 can sustain 32 full-time equivalent jobs, can create $1.1 million in total expenditures and can generate $96,000 for local and state governments. It also can add $684,000 to household incomes.

“One thing holds true,” he said. “Theaters that are open and operating, as long as they have a good business plan in place and they know what the community is looking for, they become fantastic revenue generators.”

Across central and midcoast Maine, supporters and funders have backed theater projects ranging from the Chocolate Church in Bath and the Franco American Heritage Center in a former church in Lewiston to the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney and the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner. Boothbay Harbor, Rockport, Camden, Skowhegan and Waterville all have historic opera houses. And Rockland has the Strand, which like the Colonial, started as a movie theater.

The experiences of two of these theaters shed light on the effect a historic theater can have.


Two and three decades ago, it was “Camden by the Sea and Rockland by the Smell.”

The coastal Knox County fishing community was not the city it is today.

“It was the worst place in the world,” Jessie Davis said.

When she was growing up on Mount Desert Island, Davis passed through Rockland on the way to visit friends in Owl’s Head.

“If you told me I would love it here, I would not have believed it,” she said.

Now Davis lives in Rockland with her family, and she’s the executive director of the Strand Theatre on Rockland’s Main Street. While the city’s revitalization started long before the Simmons family bought and renovated the theater, the Strand has played a role in its success.

“It’s ingrained in Rockland becoming an arts destination,” said Audra Caler Bell, Rockland’s Community Development director.

Rockland has long been home to the Farnsworth Art Museum, which has undergone an expansion. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art relocated there from Rockport in 2015, and Rockland’s Main Street is lined with art galleries, shops and restaurants.

“When you have a theater or performing arts venue, it brings people to the city at a time when you want it to be more vibrant,” Caler Bell said.

Most retail shops tend to close for the day around 6 p.m., but evening events bring people downtown to support restaurants and bars. For Davis, the Strand’s lighted marquee signals that something is going on in the city and adds a level of attractiveness to the area.

“I can say this because I hear it all the time,” Davis said. “The Strand is a real quality-of-life enhancer for the community, certainly for those who take part in the programs.”

Rockland businessman Joseph Dondis built the Strand six months after the catastrophic downtown fire of 1922, which leveled four business blocks. For eight decades, the Strand hosted movies, dance recitals, vaudeville shows and theatrical productions. It outlasted two rival theaters by the 1960s and added a second theater space by sectioning off the balcony.

Last year, the 350-seat theater welcomed 39,000 people from 200 communities for 179 events. Those events include the Camden International Film Festival in September; the Camden Conference, which was held last weekend; movies; live music performances; and live-streamed performances from the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre.

“We haven’t invested in studies for the economic impact of the Strand, but there’s a lot of evidence that the theater takes Rockland up to the next tier for small cities,” Davis said.


In Waterville, which like Augusta has a history as a mill town, the $5 million worth of renovations at the Opera House in 2013 ushered in 21st-century technology, new balcony seating, restored woodwork, new flooring, and a new set shop, dressing rooms and freight elevator.

“The economic impact of a thriving historic theater can’t be overstated,” said Kimberly Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce in Waterville. “It brings economic vitality to downtown and the whole region.”

Lindlof was chairwoman of the Waterville Opera House board of directors during the capital campaign and build-out, when the opera house was closed for nine months. Her board at the Chamber of Commerce supported her role on the opera house’s board and the time that entailed because of the economic impact it has on the community.

When she was a child, Lindlof said, downtown Waterville was a retail center filled with department stores. But as department stores have consolidated or closed and strip malls have drawn retail activity closer to Interstate 95, downtown Waterville had to recreate itself.

Through Waterville Creates!, which includes the opera house and other cultural organizations, such as the Colby College Museum of Art, the Waterville area now is being promoted as an arts destination. The Maine International Film Festival, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017, likewise draws visitors and national attention over the course of the 10-day event. In its history, it has honored actors such as Gabriel Byrne , Glenn Close and Sissy Spacek.

“If the Colonial Theatre in Augusta does anything like the Opera House does in Waterville,” Lindlof said, “it should have a very good impact.”

That’s what Michael Hall is hoping for.

Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he expects the Colonial Theatre, like Gardiner’s Johnson Hall, will draw people in from across the region.

Right now, he said, a cultural void exists in Augusta, which is the only capital city in the country that doesn’t have a performing arts center.

“We don’t want to be ‘Disgusta’ any more,” he said. “We want to compete with other capital cities.”

From an economic development standpoint, it will bring more tourism into Augusta, Hall said, and it could fuel interest in developing a boutique hotel on Water Street. Even though Augusta’s population is relatively small, hundreds of thousands people live within an hour’s drive of Maine’s capital city.

The 800-seat theater will be able to draw acts that will in turn draw people who will travel to Augusta and spend money, he said, in restaurants and bars.

Those expectations mirror the projections provided by the League of Historic American Theatres.

But there is an added element, Stein said.

If a historic theater is open and operating, it’s because of a love story between the community and its theater, he said.

“These are magical spaces,” he said. “When you get a community to fall in love with one of these buildings, it won’t go away anytime soon.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

]]> 0 Waterville Opera House sets the stage on June 22, 2016, for an upcoming show in Waterville.Sun, 19 Feb 2017 14:42:15 +0000
Michelle Singletary: Enabling adult kids doesn’t help Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:15 +0000 I spend a lot of time coaching people about money management. Without a doubt, the saddest sessions – the ones that draw the most tears – are when people are fighting with family about finances.

The combat can get particularly nasty when it involves siblings, who seem to know just the right insults to hurt deeply.

And can I be honest? Many of these arguments are the result of parents stoking rivalries or playing favorites, particularly to irresponsible adult children. Or a parent will tell one child one thing and another something entirely different. Sometimes it’s to keep the peace among warring adult children, but other times it’s a conscious act to deceive.

I’ve opened up an avenue for readers to ask my opinion about family financial feuds. In this regular feature, I try to step back and provide some clarity. Sometimes it helps to get an outsider’s viewpoint. Recently I heard from a reader who is upset about parental support that a sibling is receiving.

 The background: The reader’s sister, who is 30, has received financial assistance from the parents her entire adult life. They were paying her rent at one time, and now she lives in their basement. The woman’s unemployed boyfriend is also living there. The reader feels alone among her family in being upset about how the parents have supported the sister.

• The battle: “Not to get into any emotional issues,” the reader said, “I want to know why I am the only one (in the family) to find a problem with (the boyfriend) living off of my parents as well. Even when they broke up, he moved to a different room but still paid no rent and had no job. No, actually he’d got a job but had to quit after a week because he thought construction work was too hard. My parents think they’re helping someone who is down on his luck. They also paid to get his car fixed and all his insurance and gas money. Why am I the only one who doesn’t trust him?”

• The bottom line: I’d like to unwrap this as best I can without additional information.

Let’s start with the rent. A lot of young adults have trouble making ends meet. They may be underemployed, carrying student loan debt or both. So I’m not opposed to parents chipping in to help an adult child starting out.

But parents have to distinguish between help and a handout to someone who isn’t trying his or her best to be independent. I’m particularly concerned about parents who are retired and digging into limited retirement funds to help an irresponsible adult stay that way.

You are doing your child a disservice – and, really, you aren’t being a good parent when you enable poor behavior. If the spigot is never turned off, it will run dry. Then what?

Regarding the reader’s sister moving back in with her folks, I’m not opposed to that either. My husband and I have told our children they are welcome to return home after college to save and prepare themselves to live on their own. In fact, we encourage it. Our older daughter is about to graduate from college (Yeah!), and she’s going straight to graduate school. We’ve told her that after she finishes, she should come home. We want her to save the money she would pay for rent for a few years.

And I’ll add this: I’m a fan of multigenerational or shared housing. In many high-cost areas, it’s hard for families to afford rent or a house. Shared living space is one solution to this problem.

Now as to the boyfriend: It wouldn’t happen at my house. The parents are not responsible for supporting this grown man, who is not married to their daughter and appears to have no work ethic. Please.

Finally, as for my reader, I understand the concern. Who wants to see their parents taking care of an adult child? But in this case, if the parents are being taken advantage of, it’s by choice. And if this is about the sister getting more than she deserves, let it go. It’s not your money.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

Twitter: SingletaryM

]]> 0 Fri, 17 Feb 2017 21:32:10 +0000
Week in Review: Poland Springs seeks new site Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:09 +0000 MANUFACTURING

Poland Springs pursues expansion

Poland Spring is seeking a new site in western Maine for a $50 million water bottling plant and access to at least two additional springs that would boost the company’s production capacity by nearly 45 percent. Poland Spring, part of Swiss conglomerate Nestle S.A., already operates three Maine bottling plants, in Poland, Kingfield and Hollis. The planned new water sources and bottling operation would increase the company’s production capacity from roughly 900 million gallons a year to 1.3 billion gallons. They also would create up to 80 new jobs in rural Maine. The bottling plant site would need to meet certain criteria such as relatively close access to a nearby primary spring and more distant feeder springs from which 400 million gallons of fresh water could be extracted each year. The plant site would need to be relatively large – 60 to 120 acres – and have access to major transportation routes. The process to identify and obtain legal rights to springs that meet the company’s intense year-round needs can take years, said a company representative, who estimated the plant would open sometime between 2020 and 2022. Read the story.

ImmuCell’s sales drop 7 percent in 2016

Portland-based ImmuCell Corp.’s sales declined in 2016 from the previous year, according to preliminary financial results released by the company. ImmuCell said the re-emergence of a competitor’s previously shelved product was partly to blame. ImmuCell develops all-natural products to prevent and treat diseases among dairy and beef cattle. Sales for the year totaled $9.5 million, compared with $10.2 million during the previous year, a 7 percent decline, the company said. Sales for the fourth quarter of 2016 totaled $2.2 million, compared with $2.7 million during the fourth quarter of 2015, an 18 percent decline. Despite lower 2016 sales, revenue since 2012 has grown at a 15.4 percent compounded annual rate, said the company. Read the story.


Alabama company buying shuttered biomass plant

A shuttered, 24-megawatt power plant fueled by wood chips in Penobscot County is expected to come back on line by the end of June, bringing an estimated 300 jobs to the area. An Alabama-based company called 42 Railroad Ave LLC has signed a deal to purchase the biomass power plant in Stacyville, formerly operated by Sherman Development, for an unspecified amount from Niagara Worldwide LLC after four years of negotiations. The deal makes 42 Railroad Ave the owner of one of the largest privately owned power stations in the United States. Company CEO Steven Johnson said in a news release he plans to rebuild the turbine, activate new transmission lines and build a rotary kiln to produce more than 100 tons per day of activated carbon, which has applications including water and air purification, oil spill cleanup, medical treatments and trapping mercury emissions from coal-fired power stations and natural gas wellheads. Read the story.


Developer eyes Fisherman’s Wharf site for hotel

A local developer wants to build the first hotel on Portland’s central waterfront, a cluster of piers historically occupied by fishing and marine businesses. The project also includes a parking garage and would be located on the harbor side of Commercial Street, in front of a controversial Old Port condominium development that decades ago sparked a citywide referendum to prevent development from pushing out commercial fishing and other waterfront-dependent uses. While rules have changed since then to allow developments such as restaurants and offices on the nearly mile-long stretch, past efforts to build a waterfront hotel have never succeeded. Now David Bateman, of Bateman Partners, is looking to build a four-story hotel with 96 rooms, restaurants, a four-story office building and parking garage at Fisherman’s Wharf on land now mostly used as parking lots. The Portland Lobster Co. would be torn down to make way for a public plaza, said architect David Lloyd. He said no plans have been filed with the city, but they are being floated with community groups, such as the Waterfront Alliance, which saw the plan Tuesday night. For the project to move forward, the developers will have to receive a conditional rezoning from the city. Read the story.


Oldest Maine TV station to be sold

Maine’s first television station, started by a former governor, is expected to be sold to media giant Gray Television Inc. for $85 million. Portland-based Diversified Communications said in a release Thursday that it intends to divest itself of WABI in Bangor, and a second television station it owns in Gainesville, Florida, WCJB. Both transactions to Gray Television must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. WABI carries CBS and The CW programming. It began broadcasting in 1953 and was owned by former Gov. Horace Hildreth, a Republican who served from 1945-1949. Based in Atlanta, Gray owns and/or operates 100 television stations across 54 markets. It said in a company release that the transaction would reunite WABI with another Gray-owned station in Presque Isle, WAGM, “thereby facilitating further news and resource sharing between these stations.” Read the story.

Wex tops $1 billion revenue mark

Fast-growing Wex Inc. in South Portland has become the third member of Maine’s exclusive billion-dollar club. In 2016, the company’s annual revenue exceeded $1 billion for the first time in its history, according to a fourth-quarter earnings statement filed Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Only two other Maine-based companies, animal testing products maker Idexx Laboratories Inc. in Westbrook and outdoor retailer L.L. Bean Inc. in Freeport, have reported annual revenue of at least $1 billion. Wex, a provider of corporate payment services, has grown significantly in recent years by acquiring competitors, signing new contracts and expanding its business into new areas. Read the story.


Waste management company applies for FAME bond

A company working to build a first-of-its-kind waste management plant in Hampden has applied for a $45 million bond from the Finance Authority of Maine, a key step in the facility being built to serve the waste removal needs of many central Maine communities. Maryland-based Fiberight would use the authority’s conduit bond as a “pass-through” to receive credit from investors while avoiding federal income taxes, said Christopher Roney, general counsel for the authority. Investors would give money to the authority, which would pass it to Fiberight, but Fiberight would pay the investor back directly, so the bond would not affect the state’s credit. The Finance Authority of Maine is a quasi-independent state agency that provides financing and education to local businesses. Fiberight is planning to have the $69 million solid waste facility ready by 2018, when a contract ends between the Municipal Review Committee, which currently represents 187 communities’ trash interests, and an Orrington-based plant. Read the story.


Restaurant association names chef of the year

Josh Berry, executive chef of Union Restaurant at the Press Hotel in Portland, has been named 2017 Chef of the Year by the Maine Restaurant Association. Berry will be feted at the group’s annual banquet on March 28 at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland’ along with the association’s other honorees. Jonathan West of Jonathan’s Restaurant in Ogunquit will be Restaurateur of the Year. Read the story.

]]> 0, ME - FEBRUARY 17: Visitors get a tour of the main stage area of Aura, previously the Asylum. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)Fri, 17 Feb 2017 21:31:16 +0000