Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By CLARKE CANFIELD The Associated Press
GREENWOOD - Many people gave the Saunders Bros. manufacturing plant up for dead when it closed its doors and went to auction last spring, a victim of the sour economy and cheap imports flooding in from overseas.
When Scott Allen heard the Saunders Bros. manufacturing plant in Greenwood was closing last spring, “I thought that was it,” he says. Now he’s back at work, shown here assembling rolling pins at the reopened plant.
Photos by Pat Wellenbach/The Associated Press
Louise Jonaitis and her dog Butterscotch sit in the recently reopened Saunders Bros. plant. Jonaitis has bought four mills saying that she intends to bring the plants back to life.
Less than five months later, machines are humming and the smell of sawdust is in the air again as a skeleton crew puts out rolling pins, brush handles, dowels and other wood products.
Maine's wood products industry has been on the slide for years. Numerous plants that made hundreds of everyday things -- toothpicks, tongue depressors, Popsicle sticks, pepper mills, checkers pieces, clothespins, you name it -- have gone out of business.
Now, a Portland woman and her partners have bought not only the shuttered Saunders Bros. factory, but three other plants as well in hardscrabble areas of interior Maine. Louise Jonaitis says she intends to bring the plants back to life in regions where times are tough and jobs are scarce.
"I grew up knowing a mill of any size was the life of a community in Maine," said Jonaitis, 49, whose father worked in a paper mill when she was growing up in Rumford. "What I've been seeing as plants close is the decline of the social fabric in Maine. And I thought, 'What else do we have?"'
It's no secret that rural Maine has suffered as its manufacturing base has eroded with its wood products plants, paper mills and other manufacturing facilities shutting down or cutting back.
Jonaitis and her partners paid about $1.8 million for the four plants, a fraction of their assessed value. Jonaitis has a financial backer, as well as business partners on two of the properties.
It pleases Philip Bibeau, executive director of the Wood Products Manufacturers Association in Westminster, Mass., to see some Maine plants being given a second life rather than being sold off piecemeal at auction. In Vermont, a former Stanley Tools mill in Pittsfield that shut down last year is reopening as The Original Vermont Wood Products Inc., with plans to manufacture saw handles and other wood products.
"If the economy starts to pick up a little, these people who have picked up these companies for a song will have some business," Bibeau said.
Jonaitis, for years a social worker, seems like an unlikely savior of these mills. She got into the mining business in 2004, when she and other investors bought a gem mine in Newry where they found an unexpectedly large tourmaline deposit.
Last year, she turned to wood products plants after seeing one after another close over the years. Why, she asked, were they being shut down when Maine has such an ample wood supply and a plentiful work force?
In the past 17 months, she and her partners have bought an idled wood products plant and sawmill in Fryeburg, a former Ethan Allen furniture plant in Andover, the Greenwood mill and the Moosehead Furniture plant in Monson. The Andover, Greenwood and Monson plants were bought at auction.
She plans to slowly grow business at the Greenwood plant and have furniture-making under way by next spring in Monson. The Fryeburg facility, which will act as a sawmill to supply goods for her other plants, and the Andover plant, which will be used to dry and store wood, should be up and running late next year, she said.
Eight people are back on the payroll in Greenwood and others will soon be back at work in Monson. When things are going full steam, she hopes to have at least 60 employees between the two towns.
That's small potatoes compared to the hundreds who used to work there, but at the least her efforts are keeping plants alive that otherwise would become a footnote in Maine's long history of wood products manufacturing, said 50-year-old Fred Hamel as he worked a machine putting out thousands of small wooden dowels.
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