The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Business Wed, 31 Aug 2016 02:18:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 EpiPen maker’s tax-reduction moves take spotlight Wed, 31 Aug 2016 01:30:25 +0000 Years before it attracted nationwide criticism for drastically hiking the price of the EpiPen, pharmaceutical giant Mylan faced a quandary.

The company had merged with another in 2014 that allowed it to move its headquarters from Pennsylvania to the Netherlands through a so-called inversion that would significantly lower its tax rate. But as part of the deal, Mylan’s executives would be hit with a hefty tax bill for company stock they had received as part of their compensation packages.

To avoid the tax headaches for its top executives, Mylan accelerated $32.5 million in executive compensation for its leadership team and then reimbursed them for $20.5 million in taxes, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

The company’s chief executive, Heather Bresch, and chairman, Robert Coury, both received about $10 million ahead of schedule. The company covered $5.3 million in taxes for Bresch and $3.8 million for Coury, according to the company’s SEC filings.

The maneuver would “maintain proper incentives” so the executives would remain with the company, Mylan said at the time. Not covering the tax bill would “deprive them of a substantial portion of the value of the equity-based awards that they hold, when they were critically important to Mylan’s past success and in negotiating this transformative opportunity for Mylan.”

The strategy was just one of many steps Mylan has taken in recent years as it has pushed its tax rate to new lows. Since moving its headquarters to the Netherlands, its overall tax rate has fallen from 16 percent in 2014 to 7 percent last year, according to the SEC filing. The company has also been able to push down how much it pays in U.S. taxes, tax experts say.

“There is no doubt, that they are aggressively managing their tax situations,” said Robert Willens, an independent tax expert. Their U.S. tax rate “is close to zero, a very, very low rate,” said Willens.

Mylan’s tax strategies have come under renewed scrutiny since it raised the price of the lifesaving allergy injection EpiPen 2-Pak from about $94 in 2007 to $609 this year. That has brought public recriminations from lawmakers, who complain the company is price gouging. Mylan has struggled to contain the controversy. Last week, it said it would create a drug coupon program to save consumers money and on Monday it said it would introduce a generic version of injection.


In 2014, Mylan acquired parts of Abbott Laboratories’ generic-drugs business for more than $5 billion. That allowed it to move its headquarters to the Netherlands where the corporate tax rate is 20 percent, compared with the statutory rate of 35 percent in the United States.

The company has defended the move as strategic, noting it would prevent Mylan from being purchased by a foreign company. “What’s patriotic is making this country a place that allows you to thrive, grow your industry versus handcuffing you and making you a sitting target” to be acquired, Bresch, the company’s chief executive, said to Bloomberg in November 2014.

The company was started in 1961 by two Army buddies in West Virginia, who sold products to “doctors and pharmacists from an old Pontiac Bonneville,” according to the company’s website. It is now one of the world’s largest generic drug companies with thousands of employees around the globe. Over the last few years, it has found ways to push down its effective tax rate, including through research tax credits, according to the company’s SEC filings.


Lawmakers have long been frustrated by corporate tax avoidance maneuvers and passed legislation in 2004 to make it a more costly choice for corporate executives. Executives at companies that move their headquarters overseas through an inversion now face a 15 percent excise tax on the stock or stock options they have been awarded as part of their compensation packages.

Mylan is just the latest company to face criticism for its tax strategies. The Obama administration has taken repeated steps to make inversions less profitable, including establishing rules that were credited with dashing Pfizer’s deal to merge with Botox maker Allergen and move its headquarters to Ireland.

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Potential investor pulls out, leaving pro hockey’s future uncertain in Portland Tue, 30 Aug 2016 23:55:17 +0000 Portland is unlikely to meet the deadline to apply for an East Coast Hockey League expansion franchise for the 2017-18 season after an investor identified as a potential financier pulled out of the deal.

Godfrey Wood, who has been heading an effort to bring minor league hockey back to Portland, said in July that he had found an out-of-state investor willing to put up most or all of the $750,000 needed for an ECHL expansion franchise fee. On Tuesday, however, Wood said that after meeting with the unnamed investor “three or four times,” the investor opted not to proceed.

But buying an existing franchise and relocating it to Portland by the fall of 2017 remains a possibility, according to Wood, who said he has spoken with other potential investors.

The ECHL board of governors plans to meet at the end of September to, among other things, consider applications for expanding the league to 30 teams. Parties in Reno, Nevada, and Jacksonville, Florida, have expressed interest.

“We have not received any application from any group representing Portland,” said Joe Babik, director of communications for the league. “If something were to happen, it would have to happen pretty quickly.”


Wood was instrumental in landing the Portland Pirates, an American Hockey League franchise that relocated from Baltimore to Portland in 1993. He is executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland and former head of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In May, owner Ron Cain sold the Pirates to a group that moved the franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts. The Pirates’ departure leaves Cross Insurance Arena without a major tenant and downtown restaurants and pubs without 38 winter dates to draw hockey fans.

Brad Church, a former Pirates player who was chief operating officer under Cain, soon joined forces with Wood in hopes of bringing an ECHL team to Portland in time for the 2017-18 season.

Wood said he remains optimistic that will happen, although the expansion route seems increasingly unlikely. “I think it’s more likely we will try to buy an existing franchise,” he said Tuesday. “We’re in conversations with a number of potential investors. There is nothing definitive yet, but several people are looking hard at the situation.”

Neither Wood nor Church plan to be part of any investment group, although Church hopes to be an executive with the new team.

Wood said four potential investors have expressed interest in being sole or majority owner.

“There are others who have expressed interest in being minority owners,” he said, “depending on who the majority owner is and what the deal looks like.”


The ECHL has 27 active franchises. Two of those won’t play in the upcoming season, scheduled to begin Oct. 14.

One is the Worcester (Mass.) Railers, an expansion team approved in February and set to begin play in 2017.

The other is the former Evansville (Indiana) IceMen. In January, the franchise announced a move to Owensboro, Kentucky, but opted to “go dark” for the upcoming season in order to address arena issues. Last month, Owensboro city officials opted against building a new arena, a decision that may lead owner Ron Geary to consider selling the franchise if renovating the 66-year-old Owensboro Sportscenter proves untenable.

Initially, Wood said he thought buying an existing franchise would be cheaper than paying the expansion fee. Last month, he said the ECHL is considering a “transfer tax” that would equalize the price of an existing team and an expansion team.

On Tuesday, both Wood and Babik declined to discuss such details.

The AHL is considered the top tier of minor-league hockey, with the ECHL a rung below. Unlike the AHL, teams in the ECHL don’t pay affiliation fees, which cost the Pirates $800,000 per year to the NHL Florida Panthers, who supplied players and staff.

A lower cost structure in the ECHL includes a weekly salary cap that stood at $12,500 last season and would allow for lower ticket prices. General admission prices, Wood told the Portland Press Herald last month, could be less than half the $18 charged last season by the Pirates.

Any successful deal to bring pro hockey back to Portland must include a new lease agreement with the Cross Insurance Arena board of trustees.

“We have been in touch with them fairly regularly,” board member Neal Pratt said of Wood and Church. “We’ve sort of primed the pump with them from a conceptual standpoint. Now it’s waiting for a more concrete proposal from them.”


Pratt said the board would not agree to any new lease before meeting with the ownership group.

“When the time comes where they’re at that point,” he said, “we would certainly want to meet with the principals and understand what and who and how.”

The trustees and the Pirates were about $45,000 apart on terms for a new lease when the team abruptly announced it was leaving. The Pirates said they were losing half a million dollars a year and needed relief in the existing lease – signed through April 2019 – to keep the team in Portland.

The North division for the upcoming ECHL season consists of teams in Glens Falls and Elmira, New York; Brampton, Ontario; Wheeling, West Virginia; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Reading, Pennsylvania.

“It’s just a matter of putting the right people together at this point,” said Wood, who expressed optimism about securing a team in time for the 2017-18 season. “We don’t want to go longer than that.”


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Lawsuit ruling spares maker of Beats headphones Tue, 30 Aug 2016 23:24:22 +0000 LOS ANGELES — A judge has dismissed the key claims in a lawsuit alleging that headphone maker Beats Electronics duped one of its early partners before negotiating its $3 billion sale to Apple Inc. two years ago.

The summary judgment issued late Monday by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey resolves the heart of a case that accused Beats co-founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine of double-crossing former partner Noel Lee, founder of video and audio cable maker Monster LLC.

The allegations, made in a lawsuit filed last year, had been scheduled to go to trial next week. Now the trial will be limited to Beats’ effort to force Monster to pay its attorney fees and other costs.

Apple declined to comment on the ruling, but Beats has always maintained Monster’s lawsuit was frivolous.

Monster attorney Philip Gregory didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lee once held a 5 percent stake in Beats as part of a partnership between the headphone maker and Monster that ended in 2012. The lawsuit alleged Dre, a former rap singer whose real name is Andre Young, and Iovine, a former record producer, orchestrated a “sham” deal with smartphone maker HTC in 2011 that led to the termination of the Monster alliance.

But Fahey concluded that Beats’ actions were allowed under the contracts that Lee and Monster had entered into as sophisticated investors.

The lawsuit had alleged that Beats’ misrepresentations caused Lee to sell his remaining 1.25 percent stake for $5.5 million in 2013. That would have been worth more than $30 million had he owned it at the time of Beats’ sale to Apple. Lee’s original stake would have landed him roughly $150 million.

Fahey also dismissed Monster’s claims alleging misconduct by HTC America and Paul Wachter, a Beats investor and board member.

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Advocates to hold forum on Portland-Lewiston-Montreal rail service Tue, 30 Aug 2016 22:13:05 +0000 A coalition that supports passenger rail service will hold a public forum Thursday in Portland on a proposed train service linking Portland, Lewiston and Montreal.

The event will feature a presentation on the state of passenger rail and next steps for the proposal. The forum will be held at Stroudwater Distillery at Thompson’s Point at 6 p.m.

A passenger rail link between the three cities has been considered for years. Last year, the Legislature and cities of Lewiston and Auburn provided funding to draw up a service development plan, said Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.

The plan would include possible route maps, stop locations and equipment, Donovan said.

Speakers at the forum will include Donovan, representatives from AARP and the Sierra Club, Dr. Monika Bissell from the Maine College of Health Professionals and Montreal train advocate Francois Rebello. The event will be introduced by Portland City Manager Jon Jennings.

The event is free and open to the public.

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Textile manufacturer in Auburn scores win Tue, 30 Aug 2016 22:10:08 +0000 AUBURN — In a win for a local textile manufacturer, the federal government has approved preliminary duties on imports of a Chinese specialty fabric that allegedly have been dumped into the U.S. market, undercutting American-made products at places such as Auburn Manufacturing.

The duties, approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce last week, will take effect on products that have been imported into the country going back to June at a rate of 162 percent of the declared value.

The ruling, which was announced Tuesday at a news conference at Auburn Manufacturing, echoes a similar decision by the Department of Commerce last November to place duties on paper being imported from Canada at the request of Madison Paper Industries. The paper company, like Auburn Manufacturing, argued that illegal subsidies by foreign governments were allowing those countries to sell competitor’s products in the U.S. for a fraction of the cost.

Madison Paper closed in May, putting more than 200 employees out of work.

“This is a really big win,” Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, said Tuesday. “It shows just how many subsidies have been going to Chinese manufacturers from their government. It’s unbelievable.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, who worked with the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation to help Auburn Manufacturing bring its case to the Department of Commerce, said at the news conference that the preliminary ruling helps “create a level playing field” for manufacturers.

“When you have a government — in this case, China — that illegally subsidizes their manufacturing such that they’re able to sell their product over here and dump their product here, it hurts Auburn Manufacturing and other companies,” Poliquin said. “The fact that these duties are so high shows you how much these Chinese companies and the Chinese government has violated international law.”

Poliquin said several times at the news conference that he would speak only about unfair trade and the ruling for Auburn Manufacturing, and would not comment when asked about Gov. Paul LePage, who has recently come under fire for threats he made to a state lawmaker and racially charged statements about black and Hispanic drug dealers. On Tuesday, LePage raised the possibility that he might resign after a meeting Monday night with top Republican lawmakers, but later backtracked on the remarks.

Auburn Manufacturing produces amorphous silica fabric, a fireproof material that is used in welding and other manufacturing, and employs about 40 people in Auburn and Mechanic Falls. Leonard said Tuesday that Chinese dumping has cost the company about 30 percent of its market share for the specialty fabric over the last three years and has caused them to cut back the company’s workforce by about 20 percent over the last year.

The company is scheduled to find out in January whether the duties will be permanent. If that happens, both Leonard and Poliquin said they have high hopes that market conditions will be more favorable to the company’s long-term success.

“We’re hoping to get our market back, and that will be enough,” Leonard said. “That means we’re on a level playing field, and that’s all we need at Auburn Manufacturing. That’s all we need in Maine and in the U.S., is a level playing field, and we can be competitive.”

While the situation is similar to that of Madison Paper, Poliquin said that though the company was successful in securing permanent duties on supercalendered paper imported from Canada, other factors such as high energy costs, punitive regulations and high taxes played a role in the mill closing.

He said it is critical that more business professionals get involved in making decisions about the factors that will allow them to compete.

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Portland ocean power company gets $5.3 million research grant Tue, 30 Aug 2016 21:39:13 +0000 A Portland company that is pioneering methods to harness river and tidal energy has received a $5.3 million grant to further its research.

The U.S. Energy Department announced Tuesday that Ocean Renewable Power Co. was among the 10 organizations selected to receive more than $20 million in funding for new research, development and demonstration projects that advance the generation of electricity from ocean waves and tidal currents.

ORPC, which has been testing hydrokinetic energy systems since 2009, was one of three demonstration projects selected for funding. It will use the money to enhance the performance of its tidal turbine system to capture higher flow velocities and reduce the cost of operations, which should ultimately lower the cost of energy.

“We’ve been working on this for three years, it’s as big deal for us,” said Chris Sauer, chief executive officer of ORPC, of the grant.

In 2012, the company’s tidal power project in Cobscook Bay near Eastport became the first to connect to a utility grid in the U.S. Sauer said ORPC intends to use the grant to attract more investment and further refine a larger, commercial version of its “TideGen” unit, which the company is calling its “version 2.0.”

“We need to make the system more cost effective and reliable,” he said.

Total cost for the project is $9,962,078. ORPC has received nearly $1 million from Maine Technology Asset Fund and is seeking private investment, primarily from wealthy individuals and foundations, for the remainder.

Sauer said he’s targeting those investors because they are typically more receptive to projects that benefit the environment and mitigate climate change, benefits that “go beyond return on investment.”

ORPC will be testing its TideGen version 2.0 using information from 11 previous in-water deployments. The project will be located in Western Passage, an inlet off the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of Maine. The company received preliminary approval for the Western Passage project last month from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Sauer said if he’s able to raise the financing, he expects the design phase of the project to get underway this fall, with a device ready to put in the water in 2018.

“Our projections show in our target market, this will be a profitable power system,” said Sauer.

The company has identified remote, rural areas as its target market, where energy generation and transmission costs can be exorbitant.

The company previously developed a smaller unit dubbed “RivGen,” which was successfully tested in Alaska. The project involved installing submersible turbines in the Kvichak River to generate power for the remote Alaskan village of Igiugig. A pilot project, the technology was tested for two years and successfully demonstrated that it can provide one-third of the electrical power needs of the village. The project won an innovation award earlier this year from the National Hydropower Association.

Last year, ORPC opened an office in Ireland to test smaller hydrokinetic projects in County Donegal. It intends to use that as a foothold into the European energy market.

Besides the three demonstration projects, the Energy Department awarded money to seven organizations that are testing environmental monitoring technologies to protect wildlife and reduce environmental impacts.

Recent studies conducted by the Energy Department found that America’s technically recoverable wave energy resource ranges between approximately 900 and 1,230 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year. For context, approximately 90,000 homes can be powered by 1 TWh per year. With more than 50 percent of the U.S. population living within 50 miles of coastlines, there is vast potential to provide clean, renewable electricity to communities and cities in U.S. coastal areas, the release said.

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Seasonal gasoline prices reach 12-year low throughout U.S. Tue, 30 Aug 2016 14:48:01 +0000 It’s been the cheapest summer for gasoline prices in 12 years and consumers have saved nearly $19 billion at the pump, the analytical firm that provides the app GasBuddy said Tuesday morning.

Analysts with the firm said gas prices are on the rise because of rumors that oil-producing countries will reduce their output, but those prices are likely to fall again. GasBuddy’s analysts said supply has outpaced demand for oil for the past couple of years, leading to lower prices.

Labor Day gasoline prices are forecast to be about $2.19 a gallon, GasBuddy said, and the summer average is forecast to be about $2.24 a gallon. Both figures are at their lowest levels since 2004 for the respective time periods.

In Maine, gas prices averaged $2.22 per gallon on Monday, according to GasBuddy’s daily survey of 1,228 gas outlets in the state. That price is one cent higher per gallon than the national average.

GasTrac: Find the lowest current gas prices in your area

Demand for gasoline typically falls after Labor Day as the busy summer driving season comes to a close. In addition, environmental rules that call for costlier, cleaner-burning gasoline formulas end on Sept. 15 in much of the country, which also helps to keep prices down.

It’s “a double-whammy of downward pressure just in time for autumn,” GasBuddy said in a statement.

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Garmin pledges to continue to publish iconic Maine Gazetteer Tue, 30 Aug 2016 14:32:11 +0000 Garmin, the Swiss company that bought Yarmouth-based DeLorme in February, said Tuesday it will continue to publish its popular Atlas & Gazetteers in paper form.

The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer has been a valuable resource for Maine hikers and travelers since DeLorme began publishing it in 1976.

The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer has been a valuable resource for Maine hikers and travelers since DeLorme began publishing it in 1976.

The company said in a release that it will also “enhance” the products, although it offered no specifics beyond saying the atlases will be revised and updated and the company would make additional investments in “resources and cartography staff based in the Yarmouth facility.”

The question of the future of the atlases came up because Garmin is known for its wireless devices and technology in mapping and global positioning.

The Atlas & Gazeteers were the first products DeLorme offered when it was founded in 1976 and were known for their precision and inclusion of little-known roads and sites in rural areas of New England. Generations of Mainers kept a copy of the Maine edition in their cars to navigate back roads, find campgrounds, sand beaches, recreation areas, nature preserves, lighthouses and other scenic attractions long before the development of the Internet and GPS devices.

The company said the atlases will continue to be sold where they have been offered and no changes in distribution are planned. However, at the end of the year, online sales will move from to

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EU says Apple must pay Ireland up to $14.5 billion in back taxes Tue, 30 Aug 2016 11:06:25 +0000 Apple Inc. was ordered to pay as much as $14.5 billion plus interest after the European Commission ruled that Ireland illegally slashed the iPhone maker’s tax bill, in a record crackdown on fiscal loopholes that also risks inflaming tensions with the U.S.

The world’s richest company benefited from selective tax treatment that gave it an unfair advantage over other businesses, the European Union regulator said Tuesday. It’s the largest tax penalty in a three-year campaign against corporate tax avoidance. Apple and Ireland both vowed to fight the decision in the EU courts.

Ireland allowed Apple to pay an effective corporate tax rate of 1 percent on its European profits in 2003, declining to 0.005 percent in 2014, according to EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

“If my effective tax rate would be 0.05 percent falling to 0.005 percent, I would have felt that maybe I should have a second look at my tax bill,” she told reporters.

The U.S. Treasury Department, which has pushed back hard against the EU state-aid probes, said the commission’s actions “could threaten to undermine foreign investment, the business climate in Europe, and the important spirit of economic partnership between the U.S. and the EU.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Apple executives have shared concerns about the company’s tax treatment overseas with officials in President Obama’s administration.

Administration officials are broadly concerned that what Earnest called the EU’s “unilateral approach” doesn’t undermine coordinated efforts to prevent an “erosion of the tax base.” Also, he said, they want to ensure that any actions are fair to U.S. taxpayers and U.S. businesses.

Apple, which employs about 6,000 people in Ireland, was one of the first companies caught up in the EU’s backlash against corporate tax-avoidance. The EU, like other global regulators, has targeted firms that sidestep taxes by moving around profits and costs to wherever they are taxed most advantageously – exploiting loopholes or special deals granted by friendly governments.

“The most profound and harmful effect of this ruling will be on investment and job creation in Europe,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a letter published on the company’s website. “Every company in Ireland and across Europe is suddenly at risk of being subjected to taxes under laws that never existed.”

While the $14.5 billion figure represents the EU’s estimate of how much Ireland should claw back from Apple, the commission said the actual figure could be less if other nations used the information gleaned by the EU to claim a share of taxes.

Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said in an interview with Bloomberg TV that Vestager was advising countries to “in effect, form a queue and look for that tax.”

The commission said the amount could be reduced if the U.S. required Apple to pay larger amounts of money to its American parent company to finance research and development efforts.

Ultimately, the EU courts also have the power to cut or overturn repayment orders if they find fault with the commission methodology during the appeals process.

But such challenges can take years to finalize, meaning the final sum that Apple may have to pay won’t be known until then. The money clawed back can be held in escrow pending a ruling.

While $14.5 billion is the highest ever sought by the EU in a state-aid case, it is unlikely to leave the company short of money. As of last month, Apple had $232 billion in cash, with about $214 billion of that being held overseas. Apple generated about $4.45 billion a month last year, meaning the decision would eat up about three months of profit.

Apple’s stock declined by less than 1 percent Tuesday.

Low corporate taxes are the cornerstone of Irish economic policy, with the 12.5 percent rate the lowest in Western Europe and a draw for Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. to Dublin. More than 700 U.S. companies have units there, employing 140,000 people, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.

“It’s strange to think that Ireland would not want to collect more taxes from Apple, but Ireland’s primary concern here is protecting domestic investment and jobs,” said Matt Larson, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

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On the Job: Peter Scontras, candy store proprietor Tue, 30 Aug 2016 08:00:34 +0000 Peter Scontras is a purveyor of candy – sweetened by history.

“Penny candy used to refer to the price. Now it refers to the type of candy it is,” said Scontras, 69, during a break from replenishing jars of sweets. “I can’t buy candy for a penny.”

Scontras runs the Way Way Store, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The store opened in 1916 and has been in its current building on Buxton Road in Saco since 1929. Its name refers to its remote location on the outskirts of Saco.

A retired schoolteacher, Scontras reopened the store six years ago with the help of his wife, Bridget. The store had been closed in 2003 after having been run by generations of the Cousens family.

“I was always told by the generation before me, you can’t retire and do nothing. You have to keep your mind active. This has helped me a lot,” Scontras said.

Besides candy, the store sells candy, ice cream, homemade pies and even local vegetables.

The hardest part of the job? “You don’t know who is going to walk in the door, how many people, or when it’s going to happen.”

The best part of the job? “Some people come in and say they haven’t been in since they were kids. It brings back memories of a special time.”

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New Fitbit feature blazes virtual trail Tue, 30 Aug 2016 03:57:05 +0000 Fitbit Inc. unveiled a series of virtual “adventures” to pair with its fitness-tracking wristbands Monday as the company tries to maintain its sales momentum.

Fitbit Adventures, a new feature on the San Francisco company’s mobile app, allows users to virtually experience such “challenges” as hiking trails at Yosemite National Park or tracing the route of the New York City Marathon with each step they log on their Fitbit device.

Photos, maps and other images that show the user’s progress on the adventures can be viewed on a smartphone or other device that syncs with the trackers. Future updates will add other global destinations and experiences, Fitbit said.

The adventures “are the perfect motivation for anyone who may not want to compete in a traditional Fitbit group challenge with friends or family,” Tim Roberts, executive vice president for interactive at Fitbit, said in a statement.

Fitbit’s sales continued to surge in the first half of this year, but its profit has plunged as it invests in new products, marketing and acquisitions.

In response, the company’s stock has dropped well below the prices it enjoyed soon after its June 2015 initial public offering. The stock’s IPO price was $20 a share, and it briefly soared above $50 a share.

But the stock then suffered a steady decline and it’s dropped by more than 50 percent over the last 12 months. On Monday, Fitbit closed at $14.94, up 1.8 percent on the day. Fitbit’s current market value is $3.3 billion.

The company also has been diversifying to develop mobile-payment technology that could be integrated into its future wearable devices. In May, it acquired the wearable-payments platform of Coin, a Silicon Valley financial tech company.

Fitbit’s products now are sold at 54,000 retail stores in 64 countries. Fitbit, founded in 2007, sold 10.5 million devices in the first half of this year, up from 8.3 million in the same period last year, despite competition from rivals Jawbone, Misfit and Garmin.

Fitbit’s revenue soared in the first six months of this year to $1.09 billion, up 48 percent from $737 million in the first half of 2015. The gains were led by sales of Fitbit’s newer Blaze and Alta devices. But its profit for that period tumbled to $17.4 million, down from $65.7 million a year earlier.

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Apple plans announcement; new iPhone is expected topic Tue, 30 Aug 2016 03:56:19 +0000 Apple confirmed Monday that it will have a media event on Sept. 7 – at which it is expected to introduce a new iPhone and the next version of the Apple Watch.

While Apple never says what it’s planning before it announces new products, this is the time of year for a new iPhone and there have been plenty of reports indicating what’s expected for the next smartphone. The main rumor is that the company is going to break with its normal upgrade rhythm this year. In the past, Apple’s alternated between offering major updates for the iPhone and smaller, more incremental updates. According to that schedule, Apple should be offering a significant update to the iPhone this year, and call it the “iPhone 7.”

But reports from analysts and other Apple watchers indicate that Apple’s actually not going to offer that much of an overhaul to its phones, but will instead likely introduce two phones that look an awful lot like its current iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. A bigger change to the device is actually now expected next year, in 2017.

Apple is expected to give the guts of the phone its typical overhaul, with faster chips, a better camera and maybe a larger battery, according to multiple reports, including one from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. The larger version of the iPhone, which will probably be called the iPhone 7 Plus if Apple sticks with its conventions, may have two cameras on the back of the phone.

Despite not being a “major” upgrade on the scale of years past, Apple is expected to make at least one big change: many reports have said that Apple will do away with its headphone jack. Instead, reports have said, the company is expected to use the space now occupied by the headphone jack for a second speaker. Headphones for the iPhone may instead work with the Lightning port on the bottom of the phone, which is currently only used for charging and data transfer.

That would make the standard headphones that users have had for years completely useless with a new iPhone. Since the rumor first broke, there’s been lots of pushback from those who say it’s not a consumer-friendly move. That includes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who told the Australian Financial Review last week that Apple shouldn’t ditch the headphone jack unless it also improves the sound quality over Bluetooth wireless headphones.

Overall, Apple’s iPhone sales in 2016 haven’t been as strong as they were last year, and that’s worried many investors who know that the majority of Apple’s money comes from iPhone sales. If the reports are true, Apple is unlikely to get a sales bump on the scale that it normally does when releasing an overhauled iPhone. For example, those still using the iPhone 6 (or older) may find themselves unwilling to pay for more incremental updates, and may hold out for another year until the next model.

Then again, Apple is nothing if not surprising – so hopeful phone buyers shouldn’t go into mourning just yet.

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With a redesigned game plan, Foot Locker steps into high gear Tue, 30 Aug 2016 03:55:51 +0000 NEW YORK — Start with the shoes but move on from there. That’s the plan.

Long known for its sneakers, Foot Locker Inc. is reorganizing its stores to further highlight top brands, designating areas to showcase trends, and adding more displays of full sports gear to encourage broader shopping.

At the chain’s redesigned midtown Manhattan flagship, set to open Tuesday, large digital signs display images of the shoes as well as social feeds like Twitter that mention the brand. Larger areas are devoted to big brands like Puma and Under Armour. A section in its store is devoted to showcasing emerging fashions for women. And next to the store, there’s an experiential area called NYC33 with a separate entrance that will host fashion shows and showcase other events and launches.

“Sneakers drive the apparel that goes with it,” says Foot Locker CEO and President Dick Johnson. Even with all the other areas, the 13,000-square-foot store near Macy’s stocks about 50,000 sneakers for men, women and kids at any given time.

‘this is not a fad’

The New York-based chain, which operates more than 3,400 stores under its own name as well as FootAction, Champs Sports, Lady Foot Locker and the new women’s SIX:02 among others, has benefited from the popularity of athletic sportswear for life beyond the gym. It’s aiming to push annual sales to $10 billion through 2020 from last year’s $7.4 billion – in part by catering better to female customers. That all starts with sneakers, which represent about 80 percent of men’s sales and 75 percent of the women’s business.

Even with the liquidation of Sports Authority and its 500 stores, the field is a competitive one. Traditional rivals like Finish Line and Dick’s Sporting Goods remain, while Lululemon is expanding to new areas like swimwear and menswear and its own suppliers like Under Armour and Nike are opening more stand-alone stores. Nike’s store at The Grove in Los Angeles feature a Michael Jordan experience area where customers can test products through a digitally interactive dribbling drill that lasts 23 seconds, a nod to the athlete’s numbers. Under Armour is set to open a big store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on the site of the former FAO Schwarz store. It also penned a deal with department store chain Kohl’s to supply its clothing and accessories across all the stores.

“This is not a fad,” says NPD analyst Matt Powell, who says the athletic sportswear and footwear industry enjoyed one of its best years in 2015. It’s about a $70 billion market, divided evenly between footwear and clothes. Athletic footwear sales increased by a percentage in the middle teens last year.

Johnson says the newly designed store is important to separate itself from the competition and get its message out in New York, the epicenter of sneaker culture. Among some of the hot sneakers: Adidas Pure Boost, the Stephen Curry shoe by Under Armor, and Nike Air’s Huararaches.

“We realized long time ago that we couldn’t be everything to everybody” in one store, said Johnson. “We have definitive brands and experiences.”


The intent of the NYC33 area, for example, is not to sell stuff but to excite the customer. From Sept. 6 to Sept. 25, Foot Locker will stage fashion shows in that space highlighting singer Rihanna’s new Fenty collection for Puma that includes $600 capes and $200 sweatshirts. The line is exclusive to Foot Locker’s SIX:02 shop-within-a-shop and Bergdorf Goodman for 24 hours before distribution goes wide Sept. 7. The store also marks the debut of an area called The Collection at SIX:02 that serves as a kind of lab that showcases emerging fashions for women.

“I’m excited about the new approaches” at the store, Powell said. “They have all the different brands and so many different looks for the consumer.”

In its most recent quarter, Foot Locker’s key revenue measure was up 4.7 percent, and profits rose nearly 7 percent. In contrast, its rival Finish Line announced this year that it would close 150 stores and replace its CEO. In the first quarter, the company’s profits dropped 30 percent.

Foot Locker still has most of its stores in malls, but Johnson said he’s not concerned about Macy’s and other mall anchors closing locations.

“We’re one of the few places in the mall that people line up for,” he said.

]]> 0, 30 Aug 2016 08:16:24 +0000
Report shows Maine startup activity on the decline Tue, 30 Aug 2016 01:02:39 +0000 Entrepreneurial activity in Maine declined significantly in 2015, according to a report issued Friday by entrepreneurship advocacy group the Kauffman Foundation.

Maine fell four places to land at 20th among the 25 smaller states in the latest Kauffman Index, an annual report that measures startup business activity. Maine tied with Vermont and Utah for largest year-over-year decline in ranking among smaller states.

The report divides the nation into the 25 larger and smaller states for purposes of analysis. To develop its rankings, Kauffman examined three factors: the rate of new entrepreneurs, the “opportunity share” of new entrepreneurs, and startup density.

The rate of entrepreneurs is measured by the number of people starting businesses per month out of every 100,000 adults in a given state.

The opportunity share of new entrepreneurs gauges the percentage of entrepreneurs who already were employed but started a business because they saw opportunity in a particular industry.

Startup density measures the number of startups (new businesses) per 1,000 employers in a given state. It only counts businesses that employ at least one person besides the company’s owner.

In Maine, the rate of new entrepreneurs remained flat from 2014 to 2015 at 0.29 percent (rates ranged from 0.18 percent to 0.50 percent). In other words, an average of 290 Mainers started a business each month out of every 100,000 residents in both 2014 and 2015.

The areas in which Maine declined in 2015 were opportunity share and startup density.

In 2015, the opportunity share of new entrepreneurs was 77.68 percent, down from 80.43 percent in 2014 (percentages ranged from 71.32 percent to 90.84 percent). In other words, the share of new businesses started by entrepreneurs who already had jobs fell by about 3.4 percent.

Maine’s startup density fell from an average of 64.2 startups per 1,000 employers in 2014 to 60.7 startups per 1,000 employers in 2015, a drop of 5.5 percent. Rates in this category ranged from 51.1 to 107.4.

Promoters of Maine’s entrepreneurial community have long argued that studies such as the one conducted by Kauffman fail to capture a significant chunk of Maine’s startup activity because so many of the state’s startups are one-person operations.

Still, some entrepreneurs in Maine noted that Kauffman’s apples-to-apples comparison between 2014 and 2015 still reveals a disturbing decline in entrepreneurial activity in Maine during a period of general economic recovery.

Sam Kelley, a serial entrepreneur and owner of MBI Trailers in Scarborough, questioned the effectiveness of the many organizations promoting entrepreneurship in Maine after reading the Kauffman report. Kelley said Maine’s declining numbers are proof that a more coordinated effort is needed to encourage startup formation and help new businesses thrive.

“There are (dozens of) different organizations working on exactly this thing, just in Portland alone, but they don’t work together on anything,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem to be working.”

In 2015, Maine outperformed only Kentucky, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and West Virginia on the list of smaller states.

The five top-ranked smaller states were Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Alaska. Among the larger states, the top five were Texas, Florida, California, New York and Colorado, while the bottom five were Minnesota, Indiana, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Bryan Whitney, president of the Maine Technology Institute, which offers grants and other assistance to startups in Maine, said he is not overly concerned about the Kauffman Index report. He said that while it measures startup formation, the real growth in Maine’s entrepreneurial sector has been with existing startups that have experienced job and revenue growth.

Whitney also mentioned several positive developments in Maine that he said will help promote and fund startups even further, including a three-year investment from pro-startup nonprofit the Blackstone Foundation that has allowed MTI to create Maine Accelerates Growth, “a collaborative and complementary network of organizational partners who are working together to achieve a vision of accelerating the growth of companies, communities and talent.”

“Despite Kauffman’s numbers, I know well that there is great momentum in Maine’s startup community as evidenced by record numbers of MTI funding applications from entrepreneurs across Maine,” Whitney said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:48 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2016 to correct the spelling of Sam Kelley’s name.

]]> 5, 30 Aug 2016 09:48:50 +0000
Oil spill response ship pulled from service as Portland pipeline deliveries slow Mon, 29 Aug 2016 23:09:27 +0000 The Maine Responder, a massive pollution-control vessel that has been moored in Portland Harbor for more than two decades, has been pulled from service because its operator has lost funding and the risk of an oil spill in the region has dropped because of declining tanker traffic to the Portland Pipe Line Corp.

News of the change Monday surprised many who work to ensure the safe operation of the harbor and are concerned about protecting Casco Bay and shipping routes that the vessel has covered from Maine to Massachusetts and beyond.

The Marine Spill Response Corp. of Herndon, Virginia, confirmed Monday that the 210-foot-long vessel, which has docked in Portland since 1995, had been removed from service and its six crew members had been told they will lose their jobs.

Marine Spill Response will keep the boat in the water at Union Wharf and will continue to operate 10 other spill-response vessels, so several shipping companies and other facilities in the area that contract for its services will be able to maintain Coast Guard-approved spill-response plans, said company spokeswoman Judith Roos.

“(The Maine Responder) is being removed from active service as of today,” Roos said in a phone interview while in Portland. “We will continue to be able to meet our customers’ planning obligations in this sector even without the Maine Responder.”

Roos said the harbor has a “lower risk profile” because “trading patterns have shifted” in recent years, but she declined to draw a direct connection to the dwindling flow of the Portland Pipe Line, which delivers foreign crude from its ocean terminal in South Portland to refineries in Montreal.

“There are fewer tanker vessels trading into this area,” Roos said. “The (Maine Responder) will be deactivated with the potential to be reactivated should trading patterns change.”

Roos wouldn’t say how much it cost to operate the Maine Responder.

Peter Milholland, longtime staff member at Friends of Casco Bay, called the decision to suspend the service “shocking.” As pilot of the organization’s baykeeper’s boat, Milholland has participated in numerous spill-response drills and assisted in the cleanup after the 1996 crash of the tanker Julie N, which dumped 170,000 gallons of oil into the harbor after striking the former Portland Bridge.

“It will be a big loss to our area,” Milholland said. “There are a lot of other threats to our waters. There are other vessels that come through with other (petroleum) products, and lots of other boats with the potential for having problems, including cruise ships.”


The pipeline has nearly shut down in recent months as demand for foreign crude has fallen in the wake of booming tar sands oil production in Alberta, Canada. The pipeline received no oil deliveries from January through May this year, then took in nearly 1.4 million barrels in June, according to the latest data available from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Pipeline officials declined to provide recent shipping data, so it’s unknown whether additional crude deliveries arrived in July and August. The pipeline transported more than 22 million barrels in 2015, down from 32.6 million barrels in 2014, according to the DEP.

“(The pipeline) remains open for business, supporting its customers, the community (and) employees … and continuing the safe and excellent operation it has long been known for,” spokesman Jim Merrill said in a prepared statement.

Merrill noted that the pipeline company has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of South Portland, challenging its 2014 ban on crude oil exports, a measure intended to protect air quality that also effectively stops the pipeline company from possibly reversing its flow in order to export tar sands oil from Canada.

The Marine Spill Response Corp. is a nonprofit, Coast Guard-classified “oil spill removal organization,” according to the company’s website. It was formed after the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was passed by Congress following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. It is the largest emergency response organization of its kind in the U.S., offering oil spill cleanup services that mitigate environmental damage.

Shipping and trading companies that belong to the Marine Preservation Association, a separate nonprofit membership corporation, contribute a certain percentage of their receipts to operate the company and meet its capital needs.


Marine Spill Response has held a lease at Union Wharf for 21 years, said Charlie Poole, president of the Proprietors of Union Wharf.

Poole declined to comment on the company’s plans for the Maine Responder, other than to say that “they have a lease and they have honored their lease.”

The Maine Responder is one of 15 responder-class oil spill vessels operated by the Marine Spill Response Corp. across the U.S. In addition to a helipad, it has radar technology and infrared cameras that can detect oil in the water, hauls a 2,640-foot oil-containment boom and is capable of skimming and recovering 444,000 gallons of oil and water per day. The nearest vessel of its kind is in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, also operated by Marine Spill Response.

Crew members of the Maine Responder could fill job openings elsewhere in the company, Roos said. The company will keep five staff members in Portland. Vessels still operating out of Union Wharf include an MSRC 620 skimming barge and a 30-foot Kvichak Marco skimming vessel.

Wyman Briggs, the spill response preparedness specialist with the Coast Guard in South Portland, was among several local officials who were surprised to learn about the Maine Responder’s fate.

“It’s an unfortunate loss,” Briggs said. “It’s a very capable vessel. There’s not another one of its size in this area. Obviously we always prefer to have more response capability.”

Briggs said the Coast Guard will likely review the spill response plans of companies who have contracted for the services of Marine Spill Response.

Milholland noted that several other agencies also provide spill-response services, including the Coast Guard, the DEP and private contractors, such as Clean Harbors.

Acting Harbor Master Kevin Battle and South Portland Fire Chief Jim Wilson also were surprised to learn that the Maine Responder was being pulled from service.

Wilson said regional officials were scheduled to hold a tabletop spill-response drill Sept. 7. Now they’ll have a new factor to consider.

“Anytime you reduce a capability to respond, you have to make sure you can still respond adequately,” Wilson said. “We’ll probably get a good idea of the change in our capability when we meet next month.”

Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this report.


]]> 22, 30 Aug 2016 08:27:44 +0000
Developer scales back plans for Blue Spruce Farm subdivision in Westbrook Mon, 29 Aug 2016 22:56:39 +0000 A developer will scale back plans for a controversial housing complex in Westbrook because of a legal conflict with a landowner.

Risbara Bros. is already building nearly 200 single-family homes and apartments at Blue Spruce Farm on Spring Street. In response to high demand, the company applied to extend the subdivision by more than 300 units, mostly apartments.

Worried that the housing boom might strain the city’s roads and schools, some neighbors have called for a 180-day moratorium on residential building permits. Despite those concerns, the second phase of Blue Spruce Farm was on track for approval by the Planning Board this fall.

On Friday, however, company president Rocco Risbara penned a letter to the city to withdraw the current layout. “We will not be moving forward with the project as presented,” he wrote.

The land for the proposed second phase is owned by two separate entities – Westbrook Land Co. and resident Daniel Chick. Westbrook Land Co. is tied to a property management group in Massachusetts, according to property records.

Both properties are under option to Risbara Bros., but the company’s letter to the city suggests Westbrook Land Co. has backed out of the deal for its 29 acres. It is unclear what has caused the dispute, or whether it is related to concerns from residents.

“Due to the fact that the sellers of the Westbrook Land Company have breached the contract by refusing to close, we have been forced to file a lawsuit to compel their performance,” Risbara wrote.

That legal battle could take months or even years. If the land does become available, Risbara wrote that the company would consider it for additional development.

In the meantime, Risbara said development will move forward on the Chick parcel, which abuts the existing neighborhood. While the original proposal included 13 single-family homes, 40 condominiums and 250 market-rate apartments, the revised plans could include slightly more than 100 apartments. The new plans will likely call for nine buildings on 13 acres of land, according to Risbara’s letter.

The developer said redrawing the plans will allow Risbara Bros. to address some of the neighbors’ concerns, including cutting out a proposed public road.

“Buffering to existing neighborhood areas will be increased and easier to achieve with this plan as well,” Risbara wrote.

Bill Risbara, one of the company’s owners, did not return a call for comment Monday. The company will submit new plans to the city in coming weeks.

]]> 8, 30 Aug 2016 00:36:19 +0000
EpiPen maker says it will offer half-price alternative Mon, 29 Aug 2016 22:41:03 +0000 EpiPen maker Mylan said Monday that it would introduce a generic version of the lifesaving allergy injection at half the price of the brand-name product, after politicians denounced the company for a drug coupon program seen as a public relations Band-aid.

The generic, which the company said will be launched “in several weeks,” will carry a list price of $300 for a two-pack carton. That is half the list price for the branded product, which costs $608 for a two-pack, but it is still nearly $40 more than the price three years ago, according to data from Truven Health Analytics.

“We understand the deep frustration and concerns associated with the cost of EpiPen to the patient, and have always shared the public’s desire to ensure that this important product be accessible to anyone who needs it,” Mylan chief executive Heather Bresch said in a written statement. “Our decision to launch a generic alternative to EpiPen is an extraordinary commercial response.”

Joshua Sharfstein, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called it a face-saving move by the company. The generic offers a way of dropping the price of one version of the drug, while also bringing the company some benefits. It will allow Mylan to segment the market, because some people will continue to buy the brand-name product.

Sharfstein said one important question will be whether the price stays the same over time.

The introduction of Mylan’s generic also won’t automatically open the window to true competition from other generic companies, said Michael Carrier, a professor at Rutgers Law School. Companies can introduce generics of their brand-name drugs, called “authorized generics,” but the effect on competition is ambiguous, he said.

“We have more competition than we did yesterday, but on the other hand, we don’t have wide-open competition among the generics,” Carrier said. “And maybe by having this authorized generic, we’re keeping at bay some of that true competition.”

He noted that when the first generic drug enters the market, it usually gets a very shallow discount off the brand-name list price – maybe 5 percent or 10 percent. It is only when multiple generics enter that deeper discounts occur. The deep initial discount off the brand-name price could make the market less attractive to generics companies.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries has been trying to launch a generic version of the drug, but it was rejected by regulators earlier this year for “certain major deficiencies,” according to a spokeswoman. The product launch has been delayed until at least 2017.

Public Citizen, a patient advocacy group, noted that not everyone will get access to the generic, making it an incomplete solution to the high price – similar to the critique leveled at the coupons and patient assistance.

“The weirdness of a generic drug company offering a generic version of its own branded but off-patent product is a signal that something is wrong,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a written statement. Mylan “aims to continue ripping off some segment of the marketplace – both consumers who do not trust or know about the generic, and perhaps some insurers and payers constrained from buying a generic.”

He noted that the price in Canada is $200 for a two-pack of EpiPens and the price in France is even lower.

]]> 13, 29 Aug 2016 20:33:36 +0000
Maine Maritime Museum honors Eimskip for ‘extraordinary’ impact Mon, 29 Aug 2016 18:18:50 +0000 Shipping company Eimskip USA was honored by the Maine Maritime Museum last week for its “extraordinary contributions” to the state’s maritime heritage and its impact on Maine’s culture and economy.

The company, which is based in Iceland but operates its U.S. headquarters in Portland, received the museum’s annual Mariners Award at a ceremony Wednesday.

“The Icelandic shipping company’s decision in 2013 to make Portland its primary U.S. port of call has had – and will continue to have – a transformative effect on Maine’s economy,” according to a release from the museum announcing the honor.

It cited the company’s involvement in getting Maine to become an active member of the multinational Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for discussing sustainable development and environmental protection and other issues in the Arctic. Portland will host an Arctic Council forum in October, drawing representatives from countries all over the world.

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, provided the keynote address, and Eimskip USA’s Managing Director Larus Isfeld accepted the award on the company’s behalf.

]]> 1 Mon, 29 Aug 2016 14:33:18 +0000
Maine making up for lost ground in personal income growth Mon, 29 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Growth in personal income in Maine has lagged behind most of the rest of the country since the Great Recession began in 2007, but jumped ahead in the past year, an economic analysis indicates.

The study, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that the average annual increase in personal income was just 1.0 percent in Maine from the final quarter of 2007 to the first three months of this year. That increase exceeded personal income growth in only two states – Nevada and Illinois – and was less than the national average growth rate of 1.7 percent. Two other states – Connecticut and Arizona – matched the personal income growth in Maine during the period.

North Dakota had the strongest personal income growth during the recovery, posting an average annual increase of 4.7 percent, but like Maine, reversed course over the past year: While Maine’s income growth over the last year was the second strongest in the country at 4.6 percent, North Dakota was one of only three states to see personal income drop, declining 3.9 percent for the year. Falling oil prices hurt employment in that state and caused the decline in personal income growth. Three other poor-performing states – Wyoming, Oklahoma and Alaska – were also likely affected by the declining fortunes of the mining sector, which includes coal, natural gas and oil production.

Maine’s personal income growth for the past year trailed only neighboring New Hampshire, where personal income grew 5.4 percent.

Charles Lawton, an economist with Maine-based Planning Decisions and a columnist for the Portland Press Herald, said the income figures reflect a recovery that has been uneven throughout the country.

“The primary reason for this variation is regional specialization,” he said, pointing to states in the oil patch. Those states came back strong once the recession ended, but have been hit hard by the sharp decline in oil, natural gas and coal prices over the last two years.

Lawton said states with large metro areas have also benefited from a continuing migration from rural areas to bigger cities.

Maine’s state economist agreed, and also pointed out that the comparison of the first quarter of this year to the first three months of 2015 might paint a more positive picture for Maine.

That period in early 2015, Amanda Rector said, “was a weak quarter nationally and particularly bad in New England, where we had a harsh winter.” By comparison, the beginning of 2016 was much milder, which meant lower heating bills and more disposable income. That, along with low inflation, has helped the state economy this year, she said.

But both Lawton and Rector said Maine still has economic problems that will limit future growth.

“Without robust population growth, the aging of Maine’s existing population will lead to fewer available workers, meaning wages and salaries might start to see higher increases as businesses seek to attract workers,” she said in an email, but “if Maine is to see continued personal income growth, policymakers will need to address those things that have contributed to the below-average growth over the past few years. This includes attracting more people to the state (workers, business owners, investors).”

Lawton agreed.

“Longer term, we remain limited by our demographic imbalance,” he said. “To maintain earned income growth, as opposed to property and transfer income, we need more people, increasing the availability of cheaper alternative energy sources for heating and transportation, and making Maine a place where a variety of industries can thrive – especially those with higher average wages.”


]]> 12 Sun, 28 Aug 2016 22:10:59 +0000
HVAC school offers a lifeline to workers in dying Maine industries Mon, 29 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In the weeks leading up to the Bucksport paper mill closure in 2014, Verso worker Curtis Hamilton realized he needed to change careers.

The 34-year-old Belfast resident did some research and decided that his best option was to join the growing industry that installs and repairs heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Trevor Rollins, 28, left, discusses options for venting a furnace with senior instructor Bryan Champagne. Rollins already works in HVAC and enrolled at the technical center to take specific courses to expand his areas of expertise.

Trevor Rollins, 28, left, discusses options for venting a furnace with senior instructor Bryan Champagne. Rollins already works in HVAC and enrolled at
the technical center to take specific courses to expand his areas of expertise.

But Hamilton had no prior experience in the field known as HVAC, so with financial help from a state program, he enrolled in a three-month crash course at a Brunswick school funded in part by Maine energy companies.

Four weeks before his graduation in May 2015, Hamilton already had a job lined up with Maritime Energy in Montville, about 18 miles from his home.

“I was working for Maritime about two weeks after I finished school,” he said.

For Maine workers in declining industries, it can be difficult to find a new career with comparable pay that doesn’t require years of college. The challenge is even greater for those living in rural communities.

But since 2004, the Maine Energy Marketers Association has been operating a school in Brunswick to train workers in HVAC job skills. Graduates can obtain certifications to install, maintain and repair oil, electrical, propane and natural gas heating systems, as well as air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the HVAC industry is poised for “extremely high” job growth of 14 percent over the coming decade, making it an ideal second career for displaced workers in declining industries such as forest products.

“Companies right now are looking for new apprentices to bring into the trade,” said Bryan Champagne, senior instructor at the Maine Energy Marketers Association’s Technical Education Center.

The school, known as MTEC, graduated about 400 students in 2015, said Jamie Py, president of the association. Roughly one-third of those graduates were referred to the school by the state Department of Labor’s Career Centers and Rapid Response programs for displaced workers from other industries.

Steven Sweet works on a gas furnace. Strong job growth is forecast for the HVAC industry.

Steven Sweet works on a gas furnace. Strong job growth is forecast for the HVAC industry.


HVAC jobs are desirable because they offer relatively high wages without requiring a four-year college degree. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for HVAC workers in the U.S. is $47,830.

And most importantly, HVAC companies in Maine are hiring.

“If someone has an HVAC license, they can pretty much go out and find another job right now,” said Ed Upham, director of the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Services.

Upham, who oversees the state Career Centers and Rapid Response program for displaced workers, said MTEC is one of several state-approved schools for worker retraining. In addition to HVAC, other common career moves for former mill workers include health care, information technology, and precision machining and manufacturing.

“A lot of it depends on where you live,” Upham said. “If you live in the Portland area, obviously your opportunities are a lot more diverse.”

In most cases, workers in Maine who have been laid off because of a facility closure can get the cost of their job retraining partly or fully subsidized by the state. Hamilton said the cost of his $8,500 MTEC tuition, tools and living expenses were fully covered through Rapid Response and another program for veterans.

Upham said the most important criterion for the Department of Labor’s approved schools list is the school’s ability to help place graduates in a new career. On that score, he said, MTEC has an excellent track record.

Wrenches and rags are tools of the trade at the Technical Education Center in Brunswick.

Wrenches and rags are tools of the trade at the Technical Education Center in Brunswick.

“The whole purpose of these programs is re-employment, so there has to be a job at the end of it,” Upham said.

Other students enrolled in MTEC said they are seeking a better-paying career with greater opportunities for advancement.

Brunswick resident Sara Myers was working in day care when she decided to enroll in the school. Now, with two weeks left until graduation, she already has job interviews lined up.

Although she had no prior HVAC training before enrolling in MTEC, the 22-year-old Myers said it seemed like a good fit for her interests.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve always liked working with my hands,” she said.

Other MTEC students, including 28-year-old Trevor Rollins, already work in HVAC and are taking specific courses to expand their areas of expertise. Rollins, who works for Branch Brook Fuels in Arundel, said he is licensed in oil heating systems but came to MTEC to learn propane systems and appliances.

“It gives you the basics,” Rollins said. “The company is paying me to attend.”

Hamilton said the three-month course at MTEC is intense and requires students to study hard and learn quickly. He said it could easily be expanded to six months with all of the material that is covered.

Still, he said those willing to put in the effort will acquire the foundation they need to go out and train as apprentices in HVAC. It’s a challenging but rewarding career, he said.

“You’re going to be working long hours, weekends,” he said. “The colder it is, the more you work.”


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Central bankers spurn call for radical approach Mon, 29 Aug 2016 00:52:58 +0000 Central bankers aren’t retreating from the fight against low inflation, although they’re wary of launching a fresh assault on any daring new fronts.

Faced with disappointing growth after years of ultra-low interest rates, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and her peers who met this weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, reaffirmed their belief in the power of monetary policy to stop economies from slipping into deflation.

They were less keen on academic proposals that included the abolition of cash, raising their inflation targets, or keeping permanently large balance sheets.

Yellen, in her keynote address at the Kansas City Fed’s annual mountain retreat, said that additional tools remain “subjects for research” and were not being actively considered.

Visiting policymakers from Europe and Japan echoed her caution, while also reaffirming that they stand ready to boost stimulus if fiscal action proves insufficient to spur growth and inflation.

Central bankers in advanced economies are struggling with low inflation, low productivity and weak levels of investment. For now, however, they’re being cautious in what they’re signaling about the future and are keeping more activist options at arm’s length.

Policymakers such as San Francisco Fed President John Williams have proposed that central banks consider unorthodox measures, such as a higher inflation target or nominal gross domestic product targeting.

In stressing that monetary policy is adequate, Yellen and three other Fed officials at Jackson Hole urged structural reforms or a greater reliance on fiscal action.

“The toolkit is pretty strained,” said former Fed governor Jeremy Stein, whose paper on the Fed’s balance sheet as a financial-stability tool was the most discussed presentation of the three-day meeting.

Central bankers are “keen to reassure we have got more tools as opposed to saying, ‘Guys, we are kind of running low on ammunition here and the fiscal side needs to step up.’ ”

The symposium in Grand Teton National Park, held each year since 1978, attracts central bankers from around the world and notables such as former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who has twice used the venue to signal unconventional fiscal policies.

This year’s conference theme was designing resilient monetary policy frameworks; the topic has taken on greater urgency as the U.S. expansion has moved into its eighth year and the federal funds rate remains in a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent.

]]> 3 Sun, 28 Aug 2016 20:55:03 +0000
Maine utility commissioners grappling with net metering Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 A leading financial incentive that’s driving solar power’s growth at home is a 1980s-vintage rule called net energy billing. It requires utilities to pay small energy generators the full retail price for all the electricity they send into the grid. Those payments help recover the investment in solar-electric panels, which can run $10,000 or so at an average home.

But net energy billing, often called net metering, is controversial nationwide. As solar’s popularity grows, utilities say those payments are shifting the cost of serving homes with solar panels onto other customers. Clean-energy advocates counter that the value of this energy actually is greater than the cost. Both sides cite figures and studies to support their claims.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission now is examining this issue. It was triggered this year by part of the net energy billing rule that says the PUC must review the practice, once peak power production reaches 1 percent of Central Maine Power’s installed capacity.

Uncertainty over the future of net metering is having a chilling effect on Maine’s small solar installation industry. Business worth millions of dollars stalled last spring after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a wide-ranging solar energy bill that included a plan to update net metering. The Legislature failed to override the veto by two votes, pitting LePage and his mostly Republican allies against Democrats.

In June, a group of roughly 30 solar installers, businesses, municipalities and other interest groups asked the PUC to limit the scope of its review, so that lawmakers could take up the issue again next year. They fear that the three PUC commissioners, all of whom were appointed by LePage, will gut net metering.

Their fears were heightened last month when LePage’s energy office filed comments in the case. His office wants to lower the level of compensation for net metering, recommending that current customers get the full retail price for no more than three years. CMP says in its comments that it doesn’t oppose a “reasonable period for grandfathering.” It suggests a maximum of 10 years.

Clean-energy advocates and their political supporters say that failing to fully grandfather these accounts would break faith with residents who installed solar under the current net metering rule.

Advocacy groups including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, as well as national and local solar installers, also say CMP and LePage’s office make unsubstantiated claims about the high impact of net metering. For instance: CMP says lost revenue reached $1.3 million last winter. Solar advocates are asking the PUC to dig into these numbers. They also note that CMP and LePage have failed to provide an analysis of the benefits of solar to ratepayers, laid out in a study done for the PUC and recently updated.

Regulators in roughly two dozen states are reviewing or recently have adjusted net energy billing laws, with vastly different results.

In Nevada, decisions to cut the compensation rate for net metering and add new fees have led to a business exodus, court suits and a recently failed attempt to put the issue before voters. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a bill last spring that amounts to a short-term fix for net metering. It raises the generation “cap” from 4 percent to 7 percent for small-scale solar, while lowering the compensation rate for larger projects.

Maine’s PUC has a couple of choices. It could do nothing, and let lawmakers take another crack at a resolution. A more likely option would be to propose some changes. That would lead to a comment period and public hearings this fall, with a decision expected by year’s end.


]]> 4 Sat, 27 Aug 2016 18:17:03 +0000
Michelle Singletary: Reporting scams helps stop them Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 One of my favorite lines from “Star Trek” is a chilling utterance by the Borg, a predator that ruthlessly conquers other species.

In one episode, the Borg collective says the following to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard: “Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile.”

That last sentence always sends chills down my spine. And when it comes to one of the nastiest cons out there – IRS-impersonating scams – it might feel like there’s no use fighting back. Like the Borg, the con artists are scary, numerous and hard to defeat.

“The number of complaints we have received about this scam continue to climb, cementing its status as the largest, most pervasive impersonation scam in the history of our agency,” according to testimony delivered during congressional hearings by top officials from the office of the Treasury inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA).

With this type of fraud so widespread, one reader, Norma from Washington, D.C., asked: “Is there a valid reason to bother reporting the scam? I fully expect to get more calls. I don’t want to waste my time with an agency if no action is possible.”

Your resistance is not futile.

Your reporting does help authorities. In fact, your assistance is part of a two-pronged “advise and disrupt strategy” to combat IRS impersonators, according to Timothy Camus, TIGTA’s deputy inspector general for investigations.

If someone calls claiming to be from the IRS demanding money for a tax bill, report it by going to There is an online form. Or you can call the complaint hot line at 800-366-4484.

Reporting that you were a victim or that you received a call helps in some key ways, according to Camus.

 Providing the call-back number can lead to arrests. Since caller ID numbers can be spoofed, the telephone number that people are told to call back helps investigators. After all, this is where the bad guys are sitting waiting to ensnare victims. So, please, report the call-back number.

After I received a call, I reported the number I was given: 876-387-5721. A few days after I submitted my complaint, and as part of my reporting on this type of scam, I asked TIGTA to investigate the callback number. Turned out it wasn’t functional by the time the agency researched it. But someone else had referenced that same number as being fraud-related, a spokesperson said.

 It builds an evidentiary trail. Details matter in prosecutions. So write down what you’re being told. I took copious notes. Your notes of what was said assist authorities when they do catch the criminals.

 Telephone numbers are shut down. Camus said the agency works with the owners of the numbers to disable them. “This is a very valuable law enforcement component,” he said. “They may prevent other people from being scammed by using that number.”

The agency has shut down nearly 800 telephone numbers, representing 79 percent of the numbers reported to the agency, a spokesperson said. Some of the numbers have been disabled within one week of being submitted.

 Scam attempts are catalogued. The agency collects the numbers used in trying to trick people. TIGTA is also working with other agencies – the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission – to combat this issue.

So when you see a suspicious number on your caller ID, search for it online using any search engine, and you might see that it’s been tagged as part of a scam alert.

TIGTA uses an automated dialer to make calls to reported telephone numbers. In a taped message, the scammers are told they are in violation of federal law and are advised to stop their fraudulent activity. So far, TIGTA has made more than 100,500 calls back to scammers.

I already know what you may be thinking. These con artists probably aren’t frightened off by some recorded message. And that may be true. But at least this ties up their phone lines and keeps them from making calls. This strategy costs them money. Make it too expensive to con people and hopefully they will shut down their operation.

“The IRS telephone impersonation scam remains one of TIGTA’s highest investigative priorities,” said J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration. “We will continue to aggressively pursue the perpetrators.”

Truthfully, because so many people are falling for this fraud, it won’t go away easily. But together, by reporting each and every attempt, we can slow it down and hopefully save someone from being swindled. Our collective resistance is not futile.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

Twitter: SingletaryM

]]> 1 Sat, 27 Aug 2016 18:12:34 +0000
Week in review: Sale of Fairchild approved; lobstermen vote to close zone Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 COMMERCIAL FISHERIES

Lobstermen vote to close fishing zone to newcomers

The lobstermen of Stonington and Vinalhaven, the busiest lobster ports in Maine, have voted to close their waters to additional fishermen, preferring that newcomers wait for others to leave before dropping traps there. Almost three of every four local lobstermen who voted in a referendum this summer supported the adoption of a waiting list system. The majority included many of the small island communities that had previously opposed making newcomers wait for lobster licenses out of fear that it would discourage people from moving to their far-flung communities. Of the nine districts within the regional lobster zone, only one, the district that includes Matinicus and Criehaven, voted against making newcomers go on a waiting list. Results show that local lobstermen of all ages, license types and business size support the closure. The election results now go to the local lobster council for consideration Sept. 8. Read the story.

Swedish scientists stand behind call for ban of American lobster

Swedish scientists readily admit they don’t have the science to prove that American lobsters have invaded North Atlantic waters and become established there, but say the threat to their small native lobster population is real and can only be fully neutralized by an import ban. Their findings, released in advance of an Aug. 31 ruling by a European Union committee on whether U.S. lobsters are an invasive species, argue that American lobsters have mated with native species. The scientists support banning imports of the lobsters as a precaution. At stake are more than $136 million in live lobster exports from Maine and Massachusetts to the EU (most Maine lobster is exported through Boston). Read the story.


Spectra pledges to continue pipeline project

The loss of utility partners and a damaging court ruling in Massachusetts apparently have failed to kill the $3 billion Access Northeast natural gas pipeline project, which proponents consider critical to lowering power costs in Maine and New England and environmental groups have been fighting hard to defeat. Houston-based Spectra Energy said Wednesday that it will move ahead with Access Northeast despite a setback in the Bay State, the region’s largest energy user. Spectra has estimated the project would save New England consumers $1 billion a year. Spectra’s affirmation is of special interest in Maine. Over the objection of environmental groups, the Maine Public Utilities Commission last month gave conditional approval to a plan in which electric customers would help subsidize the construction of private natural gas pipelines. Access Northeast was the larger of two proposed projects approved for consideration. Read the story.

Heating fuel prices drop

The Maine Governor’s Energy Office says heating prices are falling slightly in Maine as residents prepare for the upcoming heating season. The office says the average price for heating oil slipped 2 cents from a month ago to $1.87 per gallon. Kerosene prices have also gone down 1 cent to $2.41 and propane prices have fallen 2 cents to $2.15 per gallon. Read the story.


Grants earmarked for rural jobs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving nearly $300,000 to five Maine communities and organizations to support rural business growth in the state. The largest grant will go to the town of New Canada to acquire land and build a garage and workshop for lease to Allagash View Farm to use for at its Christmas tree and wreath operation. The grant totals nearly $83,000. Other grants will go to the Maine Farmland Trust, the city of Eastport, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets and the Somerset Economic Development Corp. The grant to Maine Farmland Trust will be used to provide a technical assistance program about wholesale farming. Read the story.


Developer swaps retail for hotels

Auburn developer George Schott has sold off a portion of his retail real estate portfolio and is venturing further into hotel ownership. On Tuesday, Schott closed on the sale of three retail centers he owned in Auburn for a total of $20 million in cash and real estate, according to a broker involved in the transaction. The sale included Hobby Lobby Plaza, Mt. Auburn Plaza and Nobility Plaza, said Craig Young, partner at CBRE|The Boulos Co. in Portland, who represented Schott in the sale. The buyers were Thomas Auger Jr. and Nancy Auger Hunt, son and daughter of the late VIP Discount Auto Center founder Thomas Auger Sr. In mid-July, Schott purchased two hotels in South Portland and a third in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for an undisclosed sum. The hotels include the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites South Portland, in addition to a Residence Inn in Portsmouth. Read the story.

Sales nudge down while prices increase in July home sales

Sales of single-family homes in Maine dipped slightly in July, while the median sale price increased by nearly 5 percent. The Maine Association of Realtors reported Wednesday that 1,710 homes changed hands in July, 2.2 percent fewer closings than in July 2015. Meanwhile, the median sale price increased by 4.7 percent to $197,700. The median indicates that half of the homes were sold for more and half sold for less. In general, both home sales and median price have been trending upward in Maine. During the three-month period ending July 31, home sales in Maine were up 9.7 percent from a year earlier, and the median price increased by 4.8 percent to $196,000, according to the association. Read the story.


Bangor HoJo’s to close

The closing of one of the last two Howard Johnson restaurants in a couple of weeks will mark the end of its fried clam strips, ice cream and other menu staples that nourished baby boomers, and leave the once-proud restaurant chain teetering on the brink of extinction. The slice of roadside Americana will no longer be served up in Bangor after Sept. 6. The closing will leave only one Howard Johnson restaurant, in Lake George, New York. Before falling on hard times, Howard Johnson took restaurant franchises to a new level. The orange-roofed eateries once numbered more than 800, with the New England-based restaurant chain predating the ubiquitous Howard Johnson hotels. Read the story.

Parent company of Circle K buys Texas rival

The Quebec company that owns Circle K convenience stores intends to buy a San Antonio competitor in a $4.4 billion deal. CST Brands Inc. announced Tuesday that its board of directors has approved an offer from Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. for its 2,000 gas and convenience stores, clustered primarily in the Southwest with some locations in Florida, Georgia, New York and eastern Canada. In 2011, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. bought 19 gas and convenience stores owned by South Portland-based Dead River Corp. Alimentation Couche-Tard operates 6,250 convenience stores throughout Canada and the United States. In its statement announcing the intended acquisition, CST Brands said the deal will create the “world’s preferred destination for convenience and fuel.” Read the story.

]]> 0, 27 Aug 2016 17:18:51 +0000
Politics overshadow solar’s potential in Maine Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 On a former landfill in Springfield, Massachusetts, 12,980 solar panels produce enough electricity to serve 850 homes. The Cottage Street project is one of three solar arrays in western Massachusetts that provide power to customers of the regional utility, Eversource Energy.

Taken together, these three projects produce more power than 40 percent of the entire installed solar capacity in the state of Maine.

Solar power is emerging as a key strategy to combat climate change and lower New England’s dependence on fossil fuels. Massachusetts has become a national leader in solar, while Maine is a middle-of-the-pack laggard.

For example: Massachusetts ranks first in the country this year for having the best financial and policy incentives for solar, according to Solar Power, an advocacy website for homeowners. Maine is ranked 28th, tied with Indiana.

Massachusetts is rocking the solar world in part because it encourages big projects that can produce lower-cost power, including some utility-owned generation that’s sold directly to customers. Maine law bans utility-owned generation, including solar.

In Maine, the ongoing debate over the future of solar energy is concentrated on small-scale, rooftop units and the rights of homeowners.

The potential benefits of big solar projects are overshadowed by the battle ramping up now at the Maine Public Utilities Commission over how to handle net energy billing, the decades-old practice of paying homeowners the full retail price of the surplus power they send to the grid. Sometimes called net metering, this practice is the key financial incentive that helps make solar electricity affordable to homeowners.

Whatever happens at the PUC, the outcome won’t do much to advance Maine’s overall solar standing.

In Massachusetts, nearly two-thirds of solar electricity is generated by commercial and utility-scale projects, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association. And since 2013, four times more solar output is coming from these larger projects than from home installations, figures from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources show.

These facts highlight an important perspective that’s largely missing in Maine, where the future of solar has deteriorated into a political spat between Democrats and Republicans over rooftop panels.

Utilities and Gov. Paul LePage say net metering forces other electric customers to subsidize solar for homeowners, a cost that will grow as more rooftop solar is installed. This view was at the core of LePage’s veto of a hard-fought solar energy bill last spring in the Maine Legislature, a veto upheld largely with the help of Republicans.

Solar advocates and their Democratic allies, though, point to studies that show net metering in its current form actually saves more than it costs. One of those studies was done for Maine’s PUC, and recently updated.

This dispute is happening in states across the country. Meanwhile, falling panel prices, government clean-energy policies and mounting evidence of climate change are leading to explosive solar growth in the United States.

As of March of this year, 27,455 megawatts of solar capacity were installed nationwide, according to the SEIA trade group. That’s enough electricity to serve 5 million average homes. More than half of it came from utility-scale projects. A quarter came from commercial, community and institutional-size projects. A final 23 percent was generated at residential installations.

In Maine, there’s plenty of political muscle behind the sector with the smallest capacity.

National solar installers that have built their business models on residential rooftop have emerged as active lobbyists in Maine’s net metering war. Sunrun Inc., a noteworthy donor to Maine political action committees, as well as Solar City, through a recently formed group called Energy Freedom Coalition of America, are key participants in the PUC case. The state’s solar installers also rely heavily on residential rooftop installations. They are backed by influential environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The PUC has received more than 260 public comments on its case docket. Many come from residents who have installed panels on their homes or want to, citing concern for climate change and the environment. Many are form letters that begin: “Please reject any attempt to get rid of net metering in Maine.”


Maine’s 16-year-old electric industry restructuring law bans private utilities from generating any power, effectively keeping the well-financed parent companies of Central Maine Power and Emera Maine out of solar.

This policy has consequences, according to John Carroll, a spokesman for Avangrid, which owns CMP. Avangrid has 53 wind farms in 18 states and solar farms with a combined capacity of 50 megawatts in Colorado and Arizona. But a continuing legal challenge in Maine over the conditions under which utility affiliates could own generation is keeping Avangrid from directly investing in solar here, he said.

“Who are you benefiting by keeping out one of the largest, best-capitalized players?” Carroll asked.

Maine has 19.4 megawatts of installed solar capacity. One utility-scale project, Carroll said, could double Maine’s output.

“The problem is, we don’t have enough solar, not that we don’t have enough rooftop solar,” he said. “That’s why we’re lagging behind other states. We’re arguing about the best way to protect a really inefficient solution.”

The vast majority of the larger-scale projects being built or proposed in Maine are by private companies that have signed power purchase agreements to sell the electricity to specific customers or utilities, either here or out of state.

For instance: Publicly owned Madison Electric works has contracted for a 4.8 megawatt solar farm that can serve 880 homes. It will be built and financed through a partnership and power-selling contract that includes IGS Energy of Dublin, Ohio, and Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp.

Ranger Solar, a Yarmouth-based startup, has submitted proposals for a giant, 50-megawatt solar farm in Sanford. The power would be sold in Connecticut, but the project is contingent on Ranger winning a regionwide, clean-energy bidding competition.

Dirigo Solar, which has an office in Westbrook, says it’s hoping to finalize power purchase agreements by year’s end with CMP and Emera to build solar arrays ranging from five to 20 megawatts. It won PUC approval to install up to 75 megawatts of capacity, enough to power 10,000 homes.

Community solar farms, in which homeowners buy a share of the generation from a big solar array, are another way solar could grow. But Maine law currently limits farm shares to 10 customers. An attempt to increase the number died with the failed solar bill.


While big solar tries to get a footing in Maine, a law in Massachusetts, updated last spring, allows utilities to generate up to 35 megawatts of capacity from the sun.

In addition to the 3.9 megawatt Cottage Street project, Eversource Energy owns the 2.3 megawatt Indian Orchard Solar project, which can serve 500 homes. It also is located on a former landfill in Springfield, and has 8,200 panels.

The oldest project is 1.8 megawatt Silver Lake Solar, located on formerly contaminated industrial land in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 6-year-old array has 6,500 panels and can serve 300 homes.

Eversource has plans under the revised law to build 70 megawatts of solar on company-owned land that will help lower customer rates, according to James Daly, the vice president for energy supply at Eversource. Daly said the company can build big solar arrays at an installed cost of $3 a watt, compared to $4.50 a watt for small rooftop installations.

“The biggest economies are the economies of scale,” he said.

It’s less costly to buy panels by the thousands, Daly said, and it’s cheaper to install them on the ground, rather than a roof. Eversource also realizes investment tax credits and can receive special capacity payments from the region’s grid operator.

But Steve Hinchman, the financing director at Maine’s largest solar installer, ReVision Energy in Portland, said there’s a difference between cost and value. While a variety of incentives may make utility-owned solar cheaper to produce, he said, locally sited solar has a greater value for Mainers.

Homeowners pay the bulk of the cost of installing rooftop solar, Hinchman noted, while ratepayers finance utility-scale projects. He also said customers end up paying the cost of renewable energy credits that utilities receive for producing or buying clean power. Hinchman noted that studies, including the recently updated one for the Maine PUC, show that the value of solar energy greatly exceeds what homeowners are being paid under net metering, especially at times of high electricity demand.

“When you generate power on a summer afternoon, you’re sending out more-valuable power than you are being paid for,” he said. “The utility’s position is ‘solar is only good if we own it.’ That’s a recipe to gouge ratepayers.”

Rooftop solar in Maine supports more than 56 companies and 330 workers who are involved in installing and servicing small-scale solar installations, SEIA data show. Rooftop solar gives homeowners control over their electric rates and a sense of independence. And with gains in battery technology and efficiency, some homeowners see a day coming when they can cut the utility cord and generate all their own power.

A newly formed group of solar installers and customers called the Solar Energy Association of Maine is asking the PUC to extend the net metering rule and protect existing customers. But the threat from climate change is so dire that Maine needs an “all of the above” approach, according to Steve Weems, who heads the group.

“We need a solar policy that supports small scale, intermediate and large scale,” Weems said. “All of it, in the interest in really moving the needle to a much greater penetration of solar.”


]]> 44, 27 Aug 2016 18:15:13 +0000
Obama administration proposes immigration rules for entrepreneurs Sat, 27 Aug 2016 19:52:15 +0000 The Obama administration on Friday proposed immigration rules that would allow foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in the United States for up to five years if they own a significant stake in a startup company with the potential for “rapid business growth and job creation.”

Immigrant entrepreneurs who hold an ownership interest of at least 15 percent and have an “active and central role” in the company’s operations are eligible to apply for parole, or temporary permission to remain in the United States, for up to two years. If granted, they can apply to extend the parole for an additional three years.

But not every engineer with a novel idea will make the cut. To qualify, the startup must have raised at least $345,000 from qualified U.S. investors or received $100,000 in grants from select government agencies.

Other “reliable and compelling evidence” of the venture’s ability to grow and add jobs may also meet the criteria.

Those for and against the proposal have 45 days to comment before a final rule is adopted.

The proposed rule aims to address a common complaint among immigration reform advocates that existing laws force many bright and highly educated immigrants to return to their countries of origin every year. Those individuals then start companies abroad that compete with U.S. firms, advocates say, rather than building those companies here and hiring American workers.

“Immigrant entrepreneurs have always made exceptional contributions to America’s economy, in communities all across the country. Immigrants have helped start as many as one of every four small businesses and high-tech startups across America, and the majority of high-tech startups in Silicon Valley,” Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation, and Doug Rand, assistant director for entrepreneurship, at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy wrote in a blog post on Medium.

But not all immigration reform advocates support policies that specifically favor highly educated immigrants over those with less education or technical ability.

They have argued in the past that both skill sets are valuable to the U.S. economy and that cherry-picking one group of people over another does not lead to comprehensive reform.

]]> 0 Sat, 27 Aug 2016 17:33:48 +0000
Portland company pleads guilty to illegally importing live sea urchins Fri, 26 Aug 2016 21:54:53 +0000 A Portland company has pleaded guilty to illegally importing live sea urchins from Canada and reselling them in domestic and foreign markets.

ISF Trading Co. entered the plea Friday in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The company admitted violating the Lacey Act, a law that bars trading in wildlife that is illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.

Federal officials said ISF Trading bought sea urchins from a Canadian company, TGK Fisheries of Grand Manan, that wasn’t authorized under Canadian law to export urchins to the U.S. ISF Trading used the label of another Canadian supplier, Matthews Seafood of New Brunswick, to bring the urchins to the United States at the Calais Port of Entry.

According to court records, ISF Trading illegally imported about 48,000 pounds of sea urchins, with a processed roe worth at least $172,800, from TGK from Dec. 31, 2010 to Feb. 1, 2011.

ISF Trading faces up to five years of probation and up to $1.25 million in fines and forfeitures for the violations.

]]> 4 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 20:56:28 +0000
Brunswick airport to get more than $1.5 million to improve hangars Fri, 26 Aug 2016 20:28:47 +0000 BRUNSWICK – A regional authority will get more than $1.5 million in federal funding to make upgrades to Brunswick Executive Airport.

The money will pay for new energy-efficient heating systems in two of the hangars at the airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Military Airport Program is giving the money to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. The airport’s newest hangar already uses the energy-efficient system.

Military Airport Program money is used to develop aviation facilities for the public and to assist with conversion of former military airfields for public use. The Brunswick airport is the site of the former Naval Air Station Brunswick.

]]> 0 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 16:56:22 +0000
Maine fishermen want scallop harvest to stay the same Fri, 26 Aug 2016 20:22:09 +0000 ELLSWORTH – Maine’s fishing managers are proposing that fishermen be allowed to catch about the same amount of the state’s beloved scallops in the coming winter fishing season as they did this year.

Maine divides the coasts into three scallop fishing zones. The state Department of Marine Resources says next year fishermen in the zones covering southern and midcoast Maine should be allowed to possess up to 15 gallons of scallops per day.

Fishermen in the Cobscook Bay zone would be allowed to possess up to 10 gallons per day. Those limits are the same as 2015-16.

The state manages the fishery closely in part because it rebuilt after a collapse in the 2000s. Consumers pay top dollar for Maine’s big, meaty scallops.

The state’s proposal is subject to September public hearings.

]]> 0 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 21:16:50 +0000
U.S. to loan Amtrak $2.4 billion for Northeast Corridor upgrades Fri, 26 Aug 2016 19:20:09 +0000 WILMINGTON, Del. —Amtrak is receiving a $2.45 billion loan from the federal government to buy new trains, upgrade tracks and make platform improvements along the busy Northeast corridor, the largest such loan ever by the Department of Transportation, officials announced Friday.

Vice President Joe Biden, a champion of Amtrak who rode the corridor’s trains almost daily during his more than three decades in the Senate, joined Amtrak officials and deputy transportation secretary Victor Mendez in making the announcement at the Wilmington, Delaware, station named for Biden.

“You can’t make this country work without rail … This is a really, really sound investment, Biden said.

Terms of the loan were not immediately available, but Amtrak said the money would be repaid through growth in revenues from Northeast Corridor operations.

“We’re making the most significant investment in passenger rail that’s ever been made in this country,” said Amtrak board chairman Anthony Coscia.

The loan includes more than $2 billion for 28 new trains that are to replace 23 nearing the end of their useful service life. It also includes $170 million for facility improvements in New York, Washington and Maryland, and $90 million for safety improvements and $80 million for track infrastructure.

The new trains will initially travel at speeds of up to 160 mph but will be capable of traveling up to 186 mph to take advantage of future track improvements. The first next-generation train is scheduled to enter service in 2021, with the rest entering service, and the current fleet retired by the end of 2022.

“The future of Amtrak travel starts today,” said president and CEO Joseph Boardman.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who holds the seat once occupied by Biden and is himself a frequent Amtrak rider, said the timing of the new funding is good.

“Amtrak just had a remarkable year,” said Coons, citing record ridership numbers. “Amtrak is on terrific, strong and solid footing going forward.”

But Coons, Biden and other officials noted that the Amtrak system is still facing a $7 billion backlog in maintenance needs.

“Why in this country are we so boneheaded to not understand the essential value of a rail system that’s modern throughout the whole country?” Biden asked, wondering why Amtrak should have to rely on a loan to help build and maintain a rail system on par with those in Europe and Asia. “Why do we argue about whether or not it makes sense?”

Biden said the population along the Northeast Corridor is expected to grow by 58 million by 2040.

“If we don’t plan this now, what’s going to happen?” said Biden, adding that a modern rail system is not only crucial for commerce, but for national security.

Biden also noted that he had ridden more than 2 million miles on Amtrak, making close friendships throughout the years with many Amtrak employees.

“These men and women have become my family,” said Biden, who briefly became emotional at Friday’s event.

The new trains will be built by Alstom — which has sold more than 1,100 high-speed trains around the world — at facilities in New York.

Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, welcomed the announcement, calling it a victory for working people and the U.S. economy.

]]> 3 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 21:18:49 +0000
Fairchild’s pending sale to Phoenix-based company creates uncertainty for Maine Fri, 26 Aug 2016 16:10:27 +0000 ON Semiconductor announced Friday that it has received federal regulatory approval to complete its $2.4 billion purchase of local chipmaker Fairchild Semiconductor.

The Phoenix-based company had offered to buy Fairchild, which employs about 650 people locally, last December for $20 per share, but had to get numerous regulatory approvals before it could complete the acquisition.

If the deal closes, it is unclear what the sale will mean for the Fairchild plant in South Portland, where analog switches, USB devices, converters, speedy circuit breakers and other building blocks of digital circuitry are made. Some semiconductor analysts have said the sale could make the Maine operation vulnerable to closure because it is dated, while other industry observers say the cost to build a chip-making factory from scratch is prohibitively expensive, which supports the continuation of the Western Avenue facility.

According to a news release from the company, ON Semiconductor has accepted a consent order from the Federal Trade Commission to shed a line of business allowing it to acquire Fairchild. ON intends to sell an automotive ignition business, which generated less than $25 million in revenue during fiscal year 2015, to Littelfuse Inc. in Chicago to satisfy the FTC.

The deal still must be blessed by antitrust regulators in China, where Fairchild operates a plant in Suzhou.

“We need one more approval, and that is from China,” said Parag Agarwal, vice president of investor relations and corporate development for ON Semiconductor. “We are expecting that fairly soon.”

The deal was expected to be closed by the end of August and Agarwal said that timetable hasn’t changed.


The products made in South Portland fall under the Analog Power Signal and Solutions division of the company. In Fairchild’s 2015 annual report, that particular segment of the company had lost revenue, going from $413.8 million in 2013 to $399.1 million in 2014, continuing its decline to $385.2 million last year. But of Fairchild’s three manufacturing divisions, the APSS had the smallest loss from 2014 to 2015, dropping 3.48 percent, while the other divisions – Standard Products and Switching Power Solutions – recorded losses of 5 and 4.6 percent, respectively.

The company reported revenue of $1.37 billion in 2015. Sales were down 4 percent over 2014, according to Fairchild’s annual report.

When ON Semiconductor announced its intent to buy Fairchild, Keith Jackson, ON’s president and chief executive officer, said the overlap between the two companies was “minimal” and that the product lines would complement each other.

“Even though the two companies have complementary product portfolios, they serve similar end markets and a similar set of customers in similar geographies,” Jackson said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald. “There is a lot of commonality between the manufacturing and logistics operations of the two companies.”

ON Semiconductor said it expects to save about $150 million a year once the sale is completed. About $30 million will come from better coordination of supply chains, Bernard Gutmann, ON Semiconductor’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said in an interview last winter. He also said the combined company could save on general expenses, and that many of the two companies’ research and development functions will be redundant under single ownership.

The FTC insisted that ON Semiconductor dispose of the automotive ignition business because a merger with Fairchild would mean the combined company would control 60 percent of the world’s market and “it is likely that the proposed merger would substantially lessen competition in the worldwide market for Ignition IGBTs, resulting in higher prices and reduced innovation,” according to the FTC order. IGBT stands for insulated gate bipolar transistor.

Deals involving chip makers have been increasing globally because the costs for designing chips are rising and sales are slowing. Buying companies that already make chips and have a piece of the market, instead of investing in new designs and building new plants, is seen as the preferred way for a company to expand its market.

According to The New York Times, there were 10 attempts by Chinese semiconductor companies to buy competitors in the year prior to the ON Semiconductor offer. In January, Fairchild considered a higher bid of $22 per share from a Chinese consortium, but rejected it because it didn’t think the deal could clear antitrust hurdles.

Estimated at $1.3 trillion, the semiconductor market is dominated by China, which is the top fabricator and biggest producer of consumer goods using chips.

Fairchild has been ramping up its operations in China. Last year, 43 percent of its revenue, or $590 million, was generated in China. That compares with 39 percent of revenues in 2014 and 36 percent in 2013.

Of the $1.37 billion in revenue recorded in 2015, only 9 percent was generated from U.S. sources ($123.3 million). Europe accounted for 16 percent; Taiwan accounted for 9 percent; South Korea, 6 percent; other Pacific nations accounted for 16 percent.

Stephan Ohr, a semiconductor analyst for Gartner, a high-tech research and advisory firm, said at the time of ON’s offer that the South Portland plant wasn’t known for being an industry innovator and that its facilities were older than most of the plants already in ON’s network. Conversely, Betsy Van Hees, an analyst for Wedbush who specializes in the semiconductor industry, said the cost to build new semiconductor plants is prohibitive, which is fueling merger and acquisition activity worldwide. She said it was unlikely the South Portland plant would be closed, although there could be some layoffs of redundant positions in the ON acquisition.

News of the FTC approval did little to affect Fairchild’s stock price, which closed the week at $19.90, little changed from its opening price on Monday of $19.80. ON Semiconductor stocks, however, got a boost from the news. Its stock price opened the week at $10.25 per share and closed at $11.03.

Fairchild was headquartered in South Portland until 2011, when it moved to San Jose, California. It still operates administrative offices on Running Hill Road in South Portland, not far from its production plant.


]]> 12, 27 Aug 2016 00:21:19 +0000
Biotech bait could give lobstermen an alternative to herring Fri, 26 Aug 2016 15:36:25 +0000 Lobster and crab fishermen have baited traps with dead herring for generations, but an effort to find a synthetic substitute for forage fish is nearing fruition just as the little fish are in short supply, threatening livelihoods in a lucrative industry.

With about $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, a small company has developed “OrganoBait,” a hockey puck-shaped product packed with an artificial attractant crabs and lobsters love.

Commercial fishermen have long experimented with alternative baits. They have tried other fish species, processed slabs of horseshoe crab, even cow hide and pigs feet. Some products remain on the market; many have gone quickly.

No one has made commercially successful synthetic bait, and even animal-based alternatives don’t always gain market acceptance, said Bob Bayer, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Maine who studies lobsters and has worked on attractants for 30 years.

“If somebody comes up with a good one, it will be used,” Bayer said. “If it’s effective and cost effective.”

The lobster catch has been booming, but the fleet is suffering the most acute bait shortage facing the fishing industry. Lobster traps typically are baited with herring. However, not enough herring are being caught in the waters far off New England.

If prolonged, experts say, the shortage could raise the price and reduce the availability of lobsters and crabs.

Development of synthetic baits could cut into the $20 billion U.S. bait fishery, which dates to the Colonial era and plays a role in some other commercial fisheries, as well as in food products and nutritional supplements. Fishermen caught more than 200 million pounds of herring and 1.2 billion pounds of menhaden in 2014.

New England fishing managers are guiding the industry through a shortage of herring offshore by limiting the number of days they can fish closer to the coast. Without the restrictions, officials say, fishermen would be at risk of exceeding quotas the government establishes to protect fish species from overexploitation.

OrganoBait, developed by the Greensboro, North Carolina, firm Kepley Biosystems, is different from other alternative baits. It’s not an animal product, but instead a calcium-based tablet made with synthetic materials that replicate the smell of decaying fish to attract lobsters and crabs.

Kepley President Anthony Dellinger said the product could take pressure off forage fish, which some environmentalists say need protection.

“This is an area that can benefit from some science and technology,” Dellinger said. “You can just eliminate the bait sector and it will be more fish in the ocean. Less impact on sea turtles, dolphins, all of the cute little critters.”

The product has been tested with blue crab fishermen off Virginia and North Carolina since 2014 and with New Jersey blue crab fishermen and Florida stone crab fishermen since last year. There was also a pilot test with lobster fishermen in Nova Scotia, and an extensive test is scheduled for November.

In coastal Virginia, blue crab fisherman Malcolm Luebkert is one of a handful of fishermen testing out the synthetic bait, and he said he’s bracing for a future when bait fish shortages become the norm. So far, he said, the synthetic alternative seems effective.

“When menhaden becomes scarce, we need an alternative, and we need one that’s good,” he said.

Mark Pfister, a bait dealer who intends to sell OrganoBait in Florida once it is on the market, said the early returns on stone crabs are promising. The price point for the product has not been determined, though Dellinger said it will be priced competitively with bait fish, which can cost about 30 cents per pound.

“There have been baits out before, but they’ve all failed,” Pfister said. “This one looks like it’s not going to fail.”

Getting fishermen on board will present challenges. Stephen Train, a lobster fisherman based in Long Island, Maine, said he’s more inclined to suffer high prices and volatility in bait fish availability than take a chance on an unproven alternative.

“I don’t know if it would fish,” Train said.

]]> 0, 26 Aug 2016 18:43:51 +0000
Fed Chair Yellen suggests rate hike is coming, offers no timetable Fri, 26 Aug 2016 14:36:01 +0000 WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says the Fed is moving toward raising interest rates in light of a solid job market and an improved outlook for the U.S. economy and inflation. But she’s stopping short of signaling any timetable for the next rate hike.

Yellen offered a generally upbeat assessment of the economy Friday in a speech to a conference of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She pointed to strong gains in employment and strength in consumer spending. Yellen also noted that while inflation is still running below the Fed’s 2 percent target, it is being depressed mainly by temporary factors.

In light of the economy’s gains, the Fed chair said the case for an increase in the central bank’s key policy rate “has strengthened in recent months.”

Some economists have said they think conditions are ripe for the Fed to alert investors that it may be inclined to act at its next policy meeting, Sept. 20-21.

Two close Yellen allies — William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Stanley Fischer, the Fed’s vice chairman — suggested in the past week that a strengthening economy would soon warrant a resumption of the rate hikes the Fed began in December. That was when it raised its benchmark lending rate from near zero, where it had been since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008.

David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, said this week that he thought the chances of a September rate hike are rising, especially if forthcoming economic data, including next week’s jobs report for August, show strength.

But other economists have said they think December remains a more likely time for a resumption of rate increases. And some have said that if the Fed does decide to act in September, it would need to further prepare investors. According to data from the CME Group this week, investors foresee only about a 21 percent probability of a rate hike in September and only about a 52 percent chance by December.

Yellen is the lead-off speaker Friday for an annual conference attended by members of the Fed’s board of governors in Washington, officials from the Fed’s 12 regional banks and monetary leaders from around the world.

The conference’s theme is “Designing Resilient Monetary Policy Frameworks for the Future,” reflecting concern that the global economy has become trapped in a slump of low growth and low inflation and uncertainty about how central banks should respond.

In advance of Yellen’s speech Friday, George, Fischer and eight other Fed officials met Thursday with about 120 activists from the Campaign for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up coalition. The group of policy activists, labor unions and community groups has been lobbying the Fed to keep rates low to allow the economy to strengthen enough to benefit more Americans.

The group, wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, “We Need a People’s Fed,” posed questions about economic policy and the need for diversity to the Fed officials who took part in the hour-long discussion.

The coalition also wants the Fed and Congress to consider changes in the makeup of the boards of directors of the 12 regional banks to promote more diversity among a group of officials that is mainly white and male and dominated by bankers.

]]> 3, 26 Aug 2016 11:20:17 +0000
U.S. economy grew at tepid pace, GDP rose slightly in Q2 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 12:57:14 +0000 WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy expanded at a sluggish pace this spring as businesses sharply reduced their stockpiles of goods and spent less on new buildings and equipment.

The Commerce Department said Friday that gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy, increased at an annual rate of 1.1 percent in the April-June quarter. That is slightly below its previous estimate last month of 1.2 percent growth.

Consumers offset the corporate cutbacks by spending at the fastest pace in six quarters. That suggests steady job growth and modest pay gains are fueling healthy demand that could spur faster growth in the second half of this year.

The economy has expanded at a lackluster 1 percent annual pace in the first half of this year, following growth of 2.6 percent last year. This year’s sluggish first half is a stark reminder of the economy’s inability to achieve strong, sustainable growth since the recession ended seven years ago. It has been the slowest recovery since World War II, and followed the worst downturn since the 1930s. Growth hasn’t topped 3 percent for a full year since 2005.

The economy stumbled early this year as consumers spent cautiously in the first three months of the year. Slow overseas growth and a stronger dollar held back exports. Stock markets gyrated amid signs that China’s economy, the second-largest in the world, was slowing.

In the second quarter, U.S. businesses cut their stockpiles at the fastest pace since the fall of 2011.

Yet with consumers spending at a robust pace, businesses will likely have to restock their warehouses and store shelves with more goods. That should help accelerate growth to a 2.5 percent annual pace in the third and fourth quarters.

Despite weak growth, businesses hired at a strong pace in June and July. There are also signs incomes are rising, particularly for lower-paid workers. Those trends should help growth accelerate in the coming months.

Yet the strong hiring amid weak growth highlights a broader shortcoming of the economy: It has become less efficient and productive since the recession. American businesses may be hiring in part because it takes more workers to raise output even a modest amount.

]]> 0 Fri, 26 Aug 2016 09:05:00 +0000
Lobstermen in Maine’s historically open zone vote to close their waters to newcomers Fri, 26 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The lobstermen of Stonington and Vinalhaven, the busiest lobster ports in Maine, have voted to close their waters to additional fishermen, preferring that newcomers wait for others to leave before dropping traps there.

Almost three of every four local lobstermen who voted in a referendum this summer supported the adoption of a waiting list system. The majority included many of the small island communities that had previously opposed making newcomers wait for lobster licenses out of fear that it would discourage people from moving to their far-flung communities.

Of the nine districts within the regional lobster zone, only one, the district that includes Matinicus and Criehaven, voted against making newcomers go on a waiting list. Results show that local lobstermen of all ages, license types and business size support the closure.

The election results now go to the local lobster council for consideration Sept. 8. If the council approves the closure, its recommendation will go to the commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, who makes the final determination.

Approval would make permanent a temporary closure implemented in June, when the council voted to put the waiting list question to the 936 licensed lobstermen in the zone. It had been the last of Maine’s seven lobster zones to allow newcomers to fish without a wait.

Other regional councils had previously voted to close their fishing zones and make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobster licenses.


The local lobster council, which presides over what is called Zone C, also asked its members to weigh in on what to do about people who had completed most of their apprenticeships at the time the vote was conducted. Sixty percent of the local lobstermen who voted supported the idea of grandfathering applicants who had completed 92 percent of their apprenticeship duties – or 920 hours of training and 184 days of work – at the time of the vote, which would excuse them from going on the waiting list if they complete the program.

If the council approves a permanent closure, it also will have to decide how many people need to leave the industry before it allows entrance to any new qualified applicant. Most zones require more than one license holder to leave before someone new can come in.

1030646_442532 LobsterZones0816.jpg

Some who cast ballots in the summer election asked for a one-to-one license trade, and others wanted as many as three or five license holders to leave before a new person could join the fishery. Some wanted applicants who had been raised locally to get a shorter route to licensing than new residents.

The 375 lobstermen who cast ballots weren’t shy about their thoughts on the vote. The Department of Marine Resources included some of the comments, although it did not identify the fishermen who wrote them, in a spreadsheet it compiled to document the election results in advance of the upcoming lobster council meeting.

The comments showed the deep division within the tight-knit community about the benefits and drawbacks of adopting the waiting list, and the disagreement over how many people should have to leave the industry before granting any new fisherman a license.

“Something needs to be done,” one pro-closure lobsterman said. “It’s way too crowded.”

“Everyone in Zone C should be grateful for all the open years,” another lobsterman wrote.

“If you would stop the part-timers and the summer people from having traps in the ocean, then the lobstermen who wait all winter for the lobsters to come would be able to make a living,” one wrote. “These part-timers have other jobs!”

“We can’t get a trap up or down without a snarl now,” a pro-closure lobsterman said. “We can’t fit any more traps in the water. Close it, please.”


But that passion was matched by those who want to keep the zone open, despite their smaller numbers.

“We live on an island,” said one lobsterman who voted against creating a waiting list. “If you take away job opportunity to the young folks, this community will suffer.”

“This country is supposed to be a free-enterprise country,” complained another. “This is just another example of government taking away people’s rights.”

Over the past two decades, the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has doubled to an estimated 250 million adult lobsters, even as the fishermen's catch has tripled. Regional councils in six of the seven Maine fishing zones already make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobstering license and enter the business.

Over the past two decades, the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has doubled to an estimated 250 million adult lobsters, even as the fishermen’s catch has tripled. Regional councils in six of the seven Maine fishing zones already make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobstering license and enter the business. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Landings are high, so why take away from new fishermen’s opportunities?” wrote one lobsterman who voted against closing the zone.

“Everyone who puts the time in and has been a longtime resident of Maine deserves an opportunity to obtain a license,” another wrote. “Closing the zone will make it harder for someone from a non-fishing family to obtain a license.”

After years of debate, the local lobster council has tried to put the issue to a vote twice before, but the meetings have fallen through. Some council members who serve from the islands have walked out of meetings when a vote loomed that they believed would close the zone. They have worried that a cap on the number of licenses would eliminate an incentive for adult children to return home to the island, where lobstering is one of the few available jobs.

Mainlanders contend that the zone is too crowded as it is, and say outsiders have moved here just to exploit the lucrative fishery.


The coastal waters of Maine are split into seven fishing zones, lettered A through G, that stretch from the Canadian Maritimes to the New Hampshire border. Lobstermen must do 1,000 hours of training over 200 days as an apprentice to a licensed lobsterman from the zone where they live, and will fish before they can apply for a state license. In all but eastern Penobscot Bay, or Zone C, apprentices wait years for a spot to open up.

Maine has 7,280 licensed lobstermen, each assigned to a zone based on their home address, but not all of them are traditional commercial fishermen. About 5,000 set a full run of 800 traps and may employ a sternman or two. Some hold a license for recreational lobstering, or have an apprentice, student or over-70 license. About a thousand of those license holders don’t land a single lobster in a single year.

This last group of license holders, who want to keep their papers even though they are too old to fish, concerns some lobstermen when considering a waiting list system.

“What about on the other end?” one pro-closure lobsterman asked. “Men/women who are retired but keep fishing. Some people in (their) 80s still have licenses.”

“Everyone that is purchasing a license just to keep it shouldn’t be able to keep it without showing landings,” one pro-closure lobsterman said. “Unfair to new entrants!”

But a keep-it-open lobsterman wrote: “I think you should buy back retired licenses from older people that don’t fish.”

]]> 8, 26 Aug 2016 07:50:27 +0000
Facebook pushes to make money on WhatsApp by allowing commercial access Fri, 26 Aug 2016 00:01:11 +0000 Facebook is laying the groundwork for its free messaging service WhatsApp to begin making money, easing its privacy rules so data can be used for Facebook advertising and allowing businesses to message its more than 1 billion users. It’s the first step toward monetizing the platform since the social network’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg paid $22 billion for the app in 2014.

WhatsApp announced the change to its terms of service policy today. It allows businesses to communicate with users, including appointment reminders, delivery and shipping notifications and marketing pitches. In a corresponding blog post, WhatsApp said it will be testing the features over the coming months.

The policy shift may help WhatsApp generate revenue, but also could irk users drawn to its strong stance on privacy. After it agreed to be purchased by Facebook in 2014, co-founder Jan Koum pledged the deal wouldn’t change how the company handles user data. Now WhatsApp says it will begin sharing more information about its customers with the “Facebook family.” The data, including a person’s phone number, could be used to better target ads when browsing Facebook or Instagram, WhatsApp said.

Facebook agreed to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, but the deal price ultimately rose to $22 billion. Investors have been anxious to see how Zuckerberg makes money from the deal. Several services in Asia, most notably WeChat in China, have successfully opened up their platforms so businesses can interact with customers. It’s a strategy Facebook has also been taking with the communication app, Messenger.

In its blog post, WhatsApp also reiterated its commitment to encryption, saying no outside parties are able to see what its users are saying to each other. The policy has put the company at odds with government authorities in the U.S. and Europe who want an ability to intercept the communication of potential terrorists.

“Our belief in the value of private communications is unshakeable,” the company said.

]]> 0 Thu, 25 Aug 2016 20:01:11 +0000
Self-driving taxis debut in Singapore Thu, 25 Aug 2016 23:44:51 +0000 SINGAPORE — The world’s first self-driving taxis are picking up passengers in Singapore.

Select members of the public began hailing free rides Thursday through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup.

While companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for years, nuTonomy says it is the first to offer rides to the public. It beat ride-hailing service Uber, which plans to offer rides in autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, in a few weeks.

The service is starting small – six cars now, growing to a dozen by the end of the year. The ultimate goal, said nuTonomy officials, is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018, which will help sharply cut the number of cars on Singapore’s congested roads. Eventually, the model could be adopted in cities around the world, nuTonomy says.

For now, the taxis are only running in a 2.5-square-mile business and residential district called “one-north,” and pick-ups and drop-offs are limited to specified locations. And riders must have an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service. The company says dozens have signed up for the launch, and it plans to expand that list to thousands of people within a few months.

The cars – modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics – have a driver in front who is prepared to take back the wheel and a researcher in back who watches the car’s computers. Each car is fitted with six sets of Lidar – a detection system that uses lasers to operate like radar – including one that constantly spins on the roof. There are also two cameras on the dashboard to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights.

The testing time-frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Eventually, riders may start paying for the service, and more pick-up and drop-off points will be added. NuTonomy also is working on testing similar taxi services in other Asian cities as well as in the U.S. and Europe, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma said.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, said autonomous taxis could ultimately reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads from 900,000 to 300,000.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker said. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

NuTonomy, a 50-person company with offices in Massachusetts and Singapore, was formed in 2013 by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers who were studying robotics and developing autonomous vehicles for the Defense Department. Earlier this year, the company was the first to win approval from Singapore’s government to test self-driving cars in one-north. NuTonomy announced a research partnership with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority earlier this month.

Singapore is ideal because it has good weather, great infrastructure and drivers who tend to obey traffic rules, Iagnemma says. As an island nation, Singapore is looking for nontraditional ways to grow its economy, so it’s been supportive of autonomous vehicle research.

Auto supplier Delphi Corp., which is also working on autonomous vehicle software, was recently selected to test autonomous vehicles on the island and plans to start next year.

“We face constraints in land and manpower. We want to take advantage of self-driving technology to overcome such constraints, and in particular to introduce new mobility concepts which could bring about transformational improvements to public transport in Singapore,” said Pang Kin Keong, Singapore’s Permanent Secretary for Transport and the chairman of its committee on autonomous driving.

Olivia Seow, 25, who does work in startup partnerships in one-north and is one of the riders nuTonomy selected, took a test ride of just less than a mile on Monday. She acknowledged she was nervous when she got into the car, and then surprised as she watched the steering wheel turn by itself.

“It felt like there was a ghost or something,” she said.

But she quickly grew more comfortable. The ride was smooth and controlled, she said, and she was relieved to see that the car recognized even small obstacles like birds and motorcycles parked in the distance.

“I couldn’t see them with my human eye, but the car could, so I knew that I could trust the car,” she said. She said she is excited because the technology could free up her time during commutes or help her father by driving him around as he grows older.

An Associated Press reporter taking a ride Wednesday observed that the safety driver had to step on the brakes once, when a car was obstructing the test car’s lane and another vehicle, which appeared to be parked, suddenly began moving in the oncoming lane.

Iagnemma said the company is confident that its software can make good decisions. The company hopes its leadership in autonomous driving will eventually lead to partnerships with automakers, tech companies, logistics companies and others.

“What we’re finding is the number of interested parties is really overwhelming,” he said.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 20:53:13 +0000
Janet Yellen speech may signal interest rate hike Thu, 25 Aug 2016 23:35:19 +0000 WASHINGTON — The job market is humming, and so are the U.S. financial markets, with major stock indexes near record highs.

All that would normally trigger a green light for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates – especially when they’re barely above all-time lows. Yet the Fed, still casting a wary eye on the economy, has yet to signal that it will resume raising rates soon.

That signal, though, could come as soon as Friday, when Fed Chair Janet Yellen will address the annual meeting of the world’s central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Fed leaders have sometimes used the Jackson Hole event to announce major policy shifts. In 2010, for example, Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled that the Fed was considering a new round of bond purchases to try to help a struggling economy emerge from the wreckage of the Great Recession. The Fed’s purchases were intended to shrink long-term loan rates to spur borrowing and spending.

Some economists say they think conditions are ripe for Yellen to alert investors that the central bank may be inclined to act at its next policy meeting, Sept. 20-21 – especially in light of recent remarks from other Fed officials.

Two close Yellen allies – William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Stanley Fischer, the Fed’s vice chairman – have suggested in the past week that a strengthening economy will soon warrant a resumption of the rate increases the Fed began in December. That was when it raised its benchmark lending rate from near zero, where it had been since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008.

“We’re edging closer towards the point in time where it’ll be appropriate to raise interest rates further,” Dudley said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

And in a speech, Fischer offered an upbeat economic view, saying, “We are close to our targets.” Fischer added that, apart from volatile energy and food prices, chronically low inflation is now “within hailing distance” of the Fed’s 2 percent target.

Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, interpreted the officials’ comments to suggest that support is growing among Yellen and others on the Fed’s policymaking board for another rate increase as early as next month.

“The probability of a hike at the September meeting has gone up and will go up more after Yellen speaks,” Sohn said.

David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, agreed that the chances of a September rate increase are rising, especially if forthcoming economic data, including next week’s jobs report for August, show strength.

But other economists say they think December remains a more likely time for a resumption of rate increases. And some say that if the Fed does decide to act in September, it would need to further prepare investors. According to data from the CME Group, investors foresee only about a 24 percent probability of a rate increase in September and only about a 56 percent chance by December.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at DS Economics, suggested that one reason U.S. stock averages established highs so soon after Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union escalated global economic fears is the belief among many that the Fed will leave rates alone until perhaps year’s end.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 21:07:52 +0000
For more business owners, LGBT status nothing to hide Thu, 25 Aug 2016 23:33:20 +0000 MINNEAPOLIS — Starting a new business is a challenge in itself, but for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, their identities can present an additional hurdle.

There’s often pressure on these entrepreneurs to withhold aspects of their personal lives from professional circles to steer clear of controversy.

Since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, more LGBT business owners are driven by shifting public opinion and diversity-hungry companies to start openly embracing who they are.

“While people may be out in their personal lives, connecting it to their business is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Jonathan Lovitz, vice president of external affairs at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “But doing so has been incredibly beneficial for them.”

Erica Fields, president of St. Paul-based grain trader Brooks Grain, didn’t come out as a transgender woman until she was 53 in 2007.

Even then, she only came out to a few friends. Just five months earlier, Fields had started her business providing rye to whiskey distilleries like Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. Fields feared how the revelation might be perceived by her clients in a male-dominated industry.

“I thought if I just came out, I would lose everything,” said Fields, who waited until 2009 to tell clients.

That fear, echoed by many LGBT entrepreneurs, stems from a desire to avoid friction with potentially less accepting colleagues or clients, said Jay Miller, founder and creative director of the Minneapolis branding firm Imagehaus.

Since starting his own firm in 2000, Miller joined NGLCC’s Supplier Diversity Initiative, which he calls a “professional way to come out” that is less frightening.

The program, which began in 2004, certifies LGBT-owned businesses and connects them to a network of “corporate partners” looking to improve diversity in their supply chain.

It follows similar initiatives that promote businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans and people with disabilities.

Recently, there’s been a spike in interest for the certification. The national roster of certified LGBT businesses jumped from roughly 500 in 2013 to 896 by the end of July.

About 140 companies – including Delta Air Lines, General Mills and Target – use the program’s directory to find LGBT vendors. This year, NGLCC added the Democratic National Convention, Major League Baseball and defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

The certification can help a new business get noticed and make new connections, said Teresa Mock, owner of wedding planner L’Etoile Events in Minneapolis.

Mock attends NGLCC and Quorum events, such as Quorum’s annual luncheon on National Coming Out Day.

At last October’s luncheon, Mock found vendors she’d like to use for future events. Mock, who started her business in January 2015, displays her NGLCC certification on her website and says it’s a good way to filter out a “poor match.”

“When someone looks at the website and sees that (certification), and if that’s a reason they don’t want to work with me, they have to look no further,” Mock said.

Miller said he got his certification after an executive at Office Max, a longtime client, asked him about it because the office-supplies retailer wanted a way to quantify how much it spent on diverse vendors.

It’s a way for companies to go beyond preaching diversity as they feel pressure from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which tracks workplace equality at Fortune 500 companies.

“They can’t just say it anymore,” Miller said. “They have to actually follow through with what they say by action, and it needs to be in a way that is measurable.”

]]> 0 Thu, 25 Aug 2016 19:43:06 +0000
Uber losses pile up even as bookings forge ahead Thu, 25 Aug 2016 23:16:05 +0000 The ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies is not a public company, but every three months, shareholders get on a conference call to hear details on its business performance from its head of finance, Gautam Gupta.

On Friday, Gupta told investors that Uber’s losses mounted in the second quarter. Even in the U.S., where Uber had turned a profit during its first quarter, the company was once again losing money.

In the first quarter of this year, Uber lost about $520 million before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, according to people familiar with the matter. In the second quarter the losses significantly exceeded $750 million. That means Uber’s losses in the first half of 2016 totaled at least $1.27 billion.

Subsidies for Uber’s drivers are responsible for the majority of the losses globally, Gupta told investors. An Uber spokesman declined to comment.

“You won’t find too many technology companies that could lose this much money, this quickly,” said Aswath Damodaran, a business professor at New York University skeptical of Uber’s astronomical valuation. “For a private business to raise as much capital as Uber has been able to is unprecedented.”

Bookings grew tremendously from the first quarter of this year to the second, from above $3.8 billion to more than $5 billion.

]]> 0 Thu, 25 Aug 2016 19:16:05 +0000
Apple boosts iPhone security after spyware targets Mideast activist Thu, 25 Aug 2016 17:36:21 +0000 PARIS — A botched attempt to break into the iPhone of an Arab activist using hitherto unknown espionage software has trigged a global upgrade of Apple’s mobile operating system, researchers said Thursday.

The spyware took advantage of three previously undisclosed weaknesses in Apple’s mobile operating system to take complete control of iPhone devices, according to reports published Thursday by the San Francisco-based Lookout smartphone security company and internet watchdog group Citizen Lab. Both reports fingered the NSO Group, an Israeli company with a reputation for flying under the radar, as the author of the spyware.

“The threat actor has never been caught before,” said Mike Murray, a researcher with Lookout, describing the program as “the most sophisticated spyware package we have seen in the market.”

The reports issued by Lookout and Citizen Lab – based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs – outlined how an iPhone could be completely compromised with the tap of a finger, a trick so coveted in the world of cyberespionage that in November a spyware broker said it had paid a $1 million bounty to programmers who’d found a way to do it. Such a compromise would give hackers full control over the phone, allowing them to eavesdrop on calls, harvest messages, activate cameras and microphones and drain the device of its personal data.

Arie van Deursen, a professor of software engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said both reports were credible and disturbing. Forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski described the malicious program as a “serious piece of spyware.”

Apple said in a written statement that it fixed the vulnerability immediately after learning about it, but the security hole may have gone unpatched had it not been for the wariness of an embattled human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates.

Ahmed Mansoor, a well-known human rights defender, first alerted Citizen Lab to the spyware after receiving an unusual text message on Aug. 10. Promising to reveal details about torture in the United Arab Emirates’ prisons, the unknown sender included a suspicious-looking link at the bottom of the message.

Mansoor wasn’t convinced. Not only had he been imprisoned, beaten, robbed and had his passport confiscated by the authorities over the years, Mansoor had also repeatedly found himself in the crosshairs of electronic eavesdropping operations. In fact, Mansoor already had the dubious distinction of having weathered attacks from two separate brands of commercial spyware. And when he shared the suspicious text with Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak, they realized he’d been targeted by a third.

Marczak, who’d already been looking into the NSO Group, said he and fellow researcher John Scott-Railton turned to Lookout for help picking apart the malicious program, a process that Murray compared to “defusing a bomb.”

“It is amazing the level they’ve gone through to avoid detection,” he said of the software’s makers. “They have a hair-trigger self-destruct.”

Working feverishly over a two-week period, the researchers found that Mansoor had been targeted by an unusually sophisticated piece of software.

In a statement that stopped short of acknowledging that the spyware was its own, the NSO Group said its mission was to provide “authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime.”

The company said it had no knowledge of any particular incidents, and declined further comment.

]]> 1, 25 Aug 2016 22:14:59 +0000
Federal judge: Starbucks isn’t ripping you off when it puts lots of ice in your iced tea Thu, 25 Aug 2016 15:52:28 +0000 To a brewing class-action lawsuit that argued Starbucks had, for a decade, stiffed customers by filling their drinks with too much ice, a federal judge had a simple message: Chill.

FILE - This Feb. 11, 2008 file photo shows a Starbucks iced drink at a store in Seattle. A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit that claimed Starbucks was defrauding customers by adding too much ice to its cold beverages. Judge Percy Anderson tossed out the potential class-action Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, in Los Angeles federal court. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Starbucks will face two more legal brouhahas in the coming months, both making similar accusations about the ratio of liquid-to-other-stuff in Starbucks cups. Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, of the Central District of California, concluded that no typical customer would feel cheated by ice cubes, even if they took up a significant volume in the clear plastic cup. Anderson dismissed the lawsuit Friday.

At the crux of the matter, according to plaintiff Alexander Forouzesh, was the definition of what constitutes a Starbucks beverage. The Los Angeles man sued the coffee chain in May.

In the complaint, Forouzesh argued that because drink sizes were advertised by fluid ounce – a cold Venti drink is 24 fluid ounces, for instance – the coffee chain was under-filling its cups with fluid. Ice aside, Forouzesh claimed that baristas poured only about 14 ounces of drink into a Venti cup, per his measurements. In his eyes, this was far too little beverage, and fraudulently so. (The Grande Shaken Iced Peach Green Tea Lemonade Cold Drink appeared to fare slightly better, at 12 ounces liquid out of 16 advertised.)

Ice is neither beverage nor fluid, the complaint concluded. The legal action sought to represent people who had bought drinks at California Starbucks since 2006.

Anderson had little sympathy for that line of argument. “When a reasonable consumer walks into a Starbucks and orders a Grande iced tea, that consumer knows the size of the cup that drink will be served in and that a portion of the drink will consist of ice,” he wrote in dismissing the suit. “Because no reasonable consumer could be confused by this,” he wrote, the plaintiff failed to state a viable claim under any California consumer or false advertising law.

“Starbucks has not stated that its Cold Drinks contain a specific amount of liquid. Instead, Starbucks has stated that its iced drinks, which contain some amount of liquid and some amount of ice, are offered for sale in cups of various sizes.”

The judge also offered a simple solution.”But as young children learn, they can increase the amount of beverage they receive if they order ‘no ice.’ If children have figured out that including ice in a cold beverage decreases the amount of liquid they will receive,” he said, “the Court has no difficulty concluding that a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into thinking that when they order an iced tea, that the drink they receive will include both ice and tea and that for a given size cup.” (Starbucks employees, according to a 2015 Reddit discussion, seemed split on whether ordering an iced drink sans ice was fair play.)

Plus, as Starbucks uses clear cups in which the cubes are visible, the judge believes most customers would not feel swindled upon being served ice in their cold beverages.

Starbucks was happy with the ruling, as a representative told the Associated Press. But it will face two more legal brouhahas in the coming months, both making similar accusations about the ratio of liquid-to-other-stuff in Starbucks cups. As The Washington Post reported in May, an Illinois woman also alleged that Starbucks used too much ice; she also found that only about 14 ounces of a 24-ounce cup in a cold drink was liquid.

“Our customers understand and expect that ice is an essential component of any ‘iced’ beverage,” a Starbucks representative said in a statement to The Post at the time. “If a customer is not satisfied with their beverage preparation, we will gladly remake it.” The AP reported that Starbucks is planning to submit a defense in Chicago court on Thursday.

In yet another case, also filed in California, two plaintiffs charge that customers who order lattes are shortchanged. This time, it is not ice but the milky froth that displaces too much liquid volume. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in June, allowing the suit to proceed – Starbucks was consistently serving too much foam.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 12:05:31 +0000
Applications for U.S. unemployment benefits fall slightly Thu, 25 Aug 2016 13:40:37 +0000 WASHINGTON — Slightly fewer people filed for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, a sign the American job market remains healthy.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless aid slipped by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 261,000. The less volatile four-week average dropped by 1,250 to 264,000. Overall, the number of people receiving unemployment checks fell by 30,000 to 2.15 million, down 5 percent from a year earlier.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have remained below 300,000 for 77 straight weeks, longest streak since 1970. The current reading is even more impressive because the population has grown considerably since then.

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, suspects the flooding in Louisiana will put some people out of work and send unemployment claims higher over the next week. Overall, he says, “employers remain fundamentally optimistic over the economic outlook.”

The U.S. unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. Employers added 255,000 jobs in July and 292,000 in June.

Hiring is strong even though the economy has registered lackluster growth since late 2015. The economy expanded at an annual pace of 1.2 percent from April through June after growing just 0.8 percent in the first quarter and 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Solid hiring amid slow growth is worrisome. It shows that the economy is less productive, with more workers needed to produce the same or slightly more output. Productivity, or the amount of output per hour, has dropped 0.4 percent over the past year.

Weak productivity growth could hobble the U.S. economy and keep a lid on pay gains. Greater productivity allows companies to boost workers’ pay without raising prices.

]]> 2, 25 Aug 2016 17:09:12 +0000
USDA gives grants for Maine farms and rural jobs Thu, 25 Aug 2016 13:07:18 +0000 BANGOR — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving nearly $300,000 to five Maine communities and organizations to support rural business growth in the state.

The largest grant will go to the town of New Canada to acquire land and build a garage and workshop for lease to Allagash View Farm to use for at its Christmas tree and wreath operation. The grant totals nearly $83,000.

Other grants will go to the Maine Farmland Trust, the city of Eastport, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets and the Somerset Economic Development Corporation. The grant to Maine Farmland Trust will be used to provide a technical assistance program about wholesale farming.

USDA rural development state director Virginia Manuel said the grants will help a total of 142 business and farms in the state.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 20:56:15 +0000
USM class welcomes beer … for the study of chemistry Thu, 25 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 University of Southern Maine chemistry professor Lucille Benedict understands that chemistry classes can seem a little dull. So she found something a lot of college students enjoy to make it more interesting: beer.

Her ah-ha moment occurred four years ago when she was touring the Allagash Brewing Co. on Portland’s Industrial Way. That’s where she met Zach Boda, Allagash’s head of quality control, who talked about the kind analysis and chemical testing he wished the brewery could do.

“The courses I teach (do) that stuff,” said Benedict. “It’s not always easy to get students engaged in chemistry, so it was just a perfect match.”

She began using beer as a testing medium to teach chemistry. Now Benedict is in charge of the school’s new Quality Assurance/Quality Control and Research Laboratory, which started with a $488,514, three-year seed grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. The lab has partnered with the Maine Brewers Guild to provide testing and training for breweries and brewmasters.

Classes – for brewers – begin this fall with a focus on ways that beer can get contaminated or ruined by imperfections in the brewing process. Brewers will also be able to send samples to the lab for testing.

Beer samples await analysis in the beer lab at the University of Southern Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Beer samples await analysis in the beer lab at the University of Southern Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The combination of educating students while providing a valuable service to the state’s growing craft brew industry has been a boon for both.

Student Ciera Wentworth, a 20-year-old from Pownal who turns 21 this month, was glad to get out of textbooks and into the laboratory.

“I was just really excited to really apply chemistry,” Wentworth said. “A lot of people take chemistry (class) and they’re like, ‘I hate this.’ But if you show them in that chemistry class that they can be testing beer, or something they can actually be interested in, I just find it more applicable and fun. I want to pursue that as a path because it’s new and different and you’re constantly discovering new things.”

Before the lab’s opening, brewers would spend hundreds of dollars to ship beer out of state for testing. The USM lab charges $25 for basic testing, and brewers can add more tests a la carte. Requests have come from as far as breweries in Vermont.


On a recent morning, Benedict picks up beer samples from local breweries on her drive into work. The lab is already busy testing samples when she arrives, and despite the fact that there’s a part-time lab manager, Benedict is “overwhelmed with stuff to do.” What started as a dalliance with beer here and there in freshman chemistry classes has grown into a nearly full-time job.

But she says her payoff is working with students in the lab.

There, a beer refrigerator is stocked to the gills. Unlike most college fridges, this one contains nothing but high-quality Maine beer. And there’s no drinking in the lab, whether you are of legal age or not.

Student Jacob Burce was quick to point out the no-drinking rule to a thirsty reporter who was ogling Foundation’s Afterglow IPA in the fridge. Instead of popping a can open, Burce eagerly showed off the flame atomic absorption spectrometer. He and Wentworth were using the machine to torch samples of beer and analyze light waves to determine how much zinc was in it.

Professor Lucille Benedict, center, works with students in the beer lab at USM. Classes for brewers this fall will focus on how beer can get contaminated during the brewing process.

Professor Lucille Benedict, center, works with students in the beer lab at USM. Classes for brewers this fall will focus on how beer can get contaminated during the brewing process.

Analyzing beer is a hook to get students interested, Burce said, but it could just as easily be tea, coffee or water. The fact that he’s helping local companies identify possible problems or ways to improve their products is what gets him excited. Especially when the craft beer boom in Maine has led to at least 83 open breweries in the state, according to the Maine Brewers Guild.

“It means a lot to see a Maine (industry) blowing up the way it is,” Burce said. “Not just Allagash and Rising Tide, but the whole craft industry has sort of taken Portland by storm recently. It seems like a good industry to be in.”


Wentworth agrees. The attraction is applying science to solve a real-world problem.

“It could be coffee or something else, but for me it’s just the science,” she said of the appeal of working in the lab.

That is music to Benedict’s ears. She acknowledges it’s cool to run a beer-testing lab, although she’s also a fan of wine and mead. She brews her own beer at home, but Benedict says her husband drinks most of it or they give it away.

Benedict is glad she’s in a position to help Maine businesses, but mostly she’s excited that she gets to engage Maine students.

“(The beer lab) is great because it’s been proven that if you have students working at the university, they are much more likely to stay and to graduate,” she said.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 12:27:58 +0000
Treasury slams EU’s tax probe Thu, 25 Aug 2016 01:28:18 +0000 The U.S. Treasury took the unusual step Wednesday of publishing a detailed critique of the European Commission’s investigations into alleged tax avoidance schemes by a group of U.S. companies, including Apple, Starbucks and Amazon.

Treasury said the commission’s probes into whether U.S. companies unfairly benefited from low corporate tax rates in Europe “undermine” agreements on international tax law and could hurt U.S. taxpayers.

“These investigations have major implications for the United States,” wrote Robert Stack, deputy assistant secretary for international tax affairs at Treasury, in a blog post.

Treasury’s actions are not a defense of these U.S. companies’ actions but rather signal a disagreement with European authorities over how to resolve the delicate matter of who benefits from overseas profits.

It also comes amid President Obama’s push to discourage U.S. companies from moving their tax residences overseas to avoid U.S. taxes, a ploy known as corporate inversion.

Treasury is touting its tax policy concerns ahead of a verdict from the commission, anticipated this fall, on whether Apple’s tax dealings in Ireland violate European rules. Apple could be ordered to repay $8 billion – and perhaps much more – in back taxes.

Apple, based in Cupertino, California, has been pilloried for years both at home and abroad for how it handles its overseas profits – parking billions of dollars in its subsidiary in Cork, Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent. In contrast, the U.S. statutory corporate rate is 35 percent.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook defended the company’s actions in a Washington Post interview this month, denying that Apple was a “tax dodger” and that the company would happily bring back those profits home once U.S. tax law is reformed.

In Europe, the commission already has announced decisions unfavorable to other U.S. companies. Last year, it said a tax deal between Amazon and Luxembourg appeared to amount to unfair state aid by allowing the company to underpay its taxes. Amazon has since changed its tax structure.

The commission also ruled that Fiat owed back taxes in Luxembourg, and Starbucks owed them in the Netherlands, ordering the companies to repay millions of dollars.

While Europe’s handling of corporate tax policy has worried the Treasury, a commission spokeswoman said European regulators are only trying to ensure that no company receives an unfair advantage in taxation.

The Treasury said any repayments ordered by Europe could reduce the amount U.S. companies pay in taxes at home, calling such an outcome “deeply troubling” because it would effectively leave American taxpayers “footing the bill.”

The federal agency also warned that if the commission brought more tax cases against U.S. firms, it “may lead to a growing chilling effect on U.S.-EU cross-border investment.”

]]> 0 Wed, 24 Aug 2016 21:28:18 +0000
Pfizer to buy rival’s antibiotics rights Thu, 25 Aug 2016 01:10:40 +0000 TRENTON, N.J. — Drugmaker Pfizer Inc. is continuing its shopping spree with its fourth acquisition since the April collapse of its planned $160 billion megadeal to buy rival Allergan PLC and move its headquarters, on paper, to Allergan’s base in lower-tax Ireland.

In its second deal this week, New York-based Pfizer said it’s buying rights to Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC’s portfolio of approved and experimental antibiotic and antifungal pills, a move to boost Pfizer’s business in one of its priority areas. The deal is valued in excess of $1.5 billion, including rights to sell the medicines in most countries outside the U.S., royalties and other payments.

The acquisition indicates a thawing of relations between the two companies barely two years after London-based AstraZeneca fought off Pfizer’s hostile takeover attempt.

Pfizer had planned that $119 billion acquisition as a so-called “tax inversion” enabling Pfizer to slash its U.S. tax bill by moving its nominal headquarters – but not its corporate offices or executives – to England.

The tax inversion strategy had been hot in corporate America for a few years, but it’s cooled down since the U.S. Treasury Department in early April issued new tax rules to block the biggest U.S. drugmaker from becoming a corporate citizen of Ireland. Allergan is technically based in Dublin, but it’s the result of a tax inversion merger and operates from Parsippany, New Jersey.

Under the deal announced Wednesday, AstraZeneca will receive an upfront payment of $550 million. Pfizer will get rights to some medicines in development and approved ones including Merrem, for treating bacterial meningitis and serious infections of the skin and stomach; Zinforo, for pneumonia and complex skin and soft tissue infections; and Zavicefta, a combination antibiotic the European Union just approved for treating serious bacterial infections.

Luke Miels, the head of the antibiotics business unit at AstraZeneca, said the company is “pleased that our strong science in antibiotics will continue to serve a critical public health need through Pfizer’s dedicated focus on infectious diseases.”

Pfizer’s other recent deals include:

n On Monday, it announced a $14 billion deal to buy San Francisco-based Medivation, which develops pills for treating various cancers. That’s a priority area, but Pfizer is playing catch-up with rivals dominating the new generation of targeted cancer medicines.

n On Aug. 1, Pfizer announced a deal worth $150 million upfront and potentially another $495 million to acquire what Pfizer didn’t already own of Bamboo Therapeutics Inc. of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It’s developing potentially lucrative gene therapies for rare diseases.

n In June, Pfizer completed the $5.2 billion acquisition of Palo Alto, California-based Anacor Pharmaceuticals Inc., which could get a new eczema drug, crisaborole, approved by January. Pfizer also got topical toenail fungus treatment Kerydin and some other drugs in early testing.

Pfizer shares closed Wednesday down 27 cents at $34.82. Investors seem to like Pfizer’s return to focusing on deals to create new drugs, though. Since Pfizer scrapped the Allergan deal, its shares have jumped more than 12 percent.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2016 09:32:57 +0000
Uber app lets drivers set up IRA retirement fund Thu, 25 Aug 2016 01:03:15 +0000 Uber has teamed up with an automated investor service to offer its drivers a way to set up retirement accounts through the ride-hailing app.

As part of a pilot program, drivers in certain markets can use the Uber app to open an IRA or Roth IRA through robo-advisor Betterment without a required minimum account balance.

Drivers can use the accounts for free for the first year. After that, they pay 0.25 percent of the average account balance for the year.

Uber Technologies Inc. said Wednesday that this offer will apply to “tens of thousands of drivers” in Chicago, Boston, Seattle and New Jersey, and that it is working with New York-based Betterment to roll out the program nationwide. Uber, based in San Francisco, did not give a timeline for that expansion.

Betterment spokeswoman Arielle Sobel said both companies would contribute “non-monetary resources” to the partnership and that “no money was exchanged.”

Uber will not be matching driver contributions to the retirement accounts, the ride-hailing company said in an email.

Stephen Beck, managing partner of management consulting firm Cg42, said the announcement is an effort to retain drivers and compete with rival ride-hailing company Lyft, as well as get some good PR.

“Does it potentially help Uber keep the drivers they have? Yes,” he said. “Does it potentially help them attract more drivers, thereby helping them drive greater availability? Yes. “

The move comes less than a week after a federal judge rejected Uber’s proposed $100 million bid to settle a lawsuit involving drivers’ employment status.

Uber classifies its drivers as contractors. It offered to pay the settlement rather than recategorizing the drivers as employees, which would make them eligible for benefits.

]]> 0 Thu, 25 Aug 2016 09:33:19 +0000
Mistreated animals lead to charges Thu, 25 Aug 2016 00:52:34 +0000 Animal cruelty charges were filed Wednesday against a Pennsylvania small-animal dealer that supplied major pet retailers like Petco and PetSmart.

Clinton Arthur Holmes, 49, of Alburtis, was cited for 28 instances of animal cruelty, said the Montgomery County district attorney’s office and Douglass Township police in a statement.

The charges followed an investigation at Holmes Farm that revealed dozens of animals in need of veterinary treatment for symptoms ranging from hair loss to eye abnormalities to lethargy.

]]> 0 Wed, 24 Aug 2016 20:52:34 +0000
Stocks close lower, following sharp declines in health care sector as outrage over EpiPens pricing continues Wed, 24 Aug 2016 23:57:00 +0000 NEW YORK — Stocks closed lower on Wednesday, led by sharp declines in health-care companies as outrage over the steep price hikes for Mylan’s EpiPens escalates.

Trading remains quiet overall with many investors still on vacation..

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 65.82 points, or 0.4 percent, to 18,481.48. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index lost 11.46 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,175.44 and the Nasdaq composite lost 42.38 points, or 0.8 percent, to 5,217.69.

Major indexes were down slightly for most of the day, and the losses deepened as a late-day sell-off in drugmakers dragged the broader market lower.

Outrage over Mylan’s price increases for its EpiPen product continues to grow. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton issued a statement Wednesday calling Mylan’s price increases “outrageous” and called for the company to reduce its prices.

EpiPens are medical devices designed to deliver adrenaline to a patient suffering from a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Allergy sufferers often have to carry more than one because they always need to be close by in case of an emergency. Mylan, which bought the rights to the product in 2007, has raised the price from roughly $100 for two pens to roughly $600.

]]> 0 Wed, 24 Aug 2016 19:57:00 +0000