Maine Beer Co. and others push the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tweak eligibility rules for money in Freeport and area towns.

Persistence on the part of Freeport companies Maine Beer Co. and Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections, which had requested financial assistance to install solar panels, has led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to re-adjust eligibility for its Business Program grants in Freeport and 11 towns in Greater Portland.

Freeport and the other towns now will have access to millions of dollars in grants and loans for rural development programs.

“It’s a major change that will have a tremendous economic and community development impact for the state,” said Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp.

Maine Beer Co. applied to the USDA Business Program’s Rural Energy for America Loan and Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to agricultural producers and small businesses in rural America to purchase, install, and construct renewable energy systems, as well as other services.

Maine Beer Co. manufactures and sells beer at its location on 525 Route 1.

Jeremy Lindberg, operations officer at Maine Beer Co., was humble regarding the achievement.

“It’s sort of like a happy accident,” Lindberg said. “In Freeport, a lot of local businesses are excited. It will be interesting to see what effect this has.”

David and Daniel Kleban are the owners of the company, which employs six people and opened two years ago.

Wilbur’s owner Tom Wilbur said he has been trying to get the USDA funding map changed for years.

Wilbur paid $43,000 for installation of solar panels at the Chocolate Factory in Freeport, just prior to the USDA announcement.

“I’ve been working three years to get USDA to change the eligibility map,” he said. “I heard in September that they were working on it. On Dec. 15, I learned they had opened up the map area. I’m hoping they will give me equal consideration, especially since I dogged them for so long.

“As far as I know, I am in the same pool of applicants as Maine Beer,” Wilbur said.

Virginia Manuel, USDA Rural Development state director, said Freeport and the other Portland-area towns had not been eligible for the Business Program grants because of proximity to Portland and the Interstate 95 corridor. Portland’s population exceeds the 50,000 limit that the program can serve, she said.

“That, frankly, had been a challenge to us,” Manuel said. “Freeport got it started. As state director, I want to see our funds penetrate as much of our state as they can.”

Manuel said that Maine Beer Co. continued to inquire about the program, once it learned Freeport was ineligible.

“They started posing questions about it, and I asked my staff in Washington to look more thoroughly into it,” Manuel recalled. “They did research with maps and asked exceptions that could be made with these ‘string areas’ outside I-95.”

Early this month, Manuel said, the administration of the Rural Business Service in Washington, D.C., authorized the exceptions to the old standards.

“We now have this exception, and we’re quite happy about that,” Manuel said. “We need to be going to bat for our rural communities in Maine.”

Freeport, Yarmouth, Cumberland, Windham, Gorham, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford are now eligible for the Business Program. In addition, certain rural areas of Falmouth, Westbrook, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth can apply for the assistance.

“The revamped USDA guidelines mean that these towns and businesses can utilize funds to purchase land or equipment, facilitate debt restructuring, conduct feasibility studies, install renewable energy or energy-efficient systems, enter into value-added activities, and more,” Manuel said.

Lindberg said that Maine Beer submitted the grant application last Wednesday to the USDA office in Presque Isle.

“Any money that we put into the project can be considered for 25 percent reimbursement,” he said.

Lindberg said that his company wants to install solar panels on its south-facing roof, as well as two solar trackers on the lawn. Lindberg estimated the cost of the project at $150,000.

He was not sure when the project might get started. Summer would be ideal, he said, because that’s peak season for electricity generation.

McBride said other Freeport companies, which he declined to name, have already shown interest in the USDA grants.

“We’ve heard from three,” McBride said, “and we haven’t done any real outreach.”

Shiny vats contain the beer made at Maine Beer Co. in Freeport. Courtesy photoMaine Beer Co. on Route 1 in Freeport plans to install solar panels on the south-facing side of its roof.Daniel Kleban behind the taps at Maine Beer Co.

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