Port of Portland in line for grant to double freight capacity

The Port of Portland is in line to get the final grant it needs to launch a $15.5 million improvement project that will double the amount of cargo freight it can move through the International Marine Terminal. The project will add a second mobile harbor crane to the port, which enables faster loading and unloading of shipping containers, raze an old maintenance facility and build a new one in a better location, and improve rail connections. The project will be funded by a combination of federal and state grants, which include a $7.7 million federal freight infrastructure grant awarded Wednesday, and a $500,000 investment from Pan Am Railways, a private regional railroad. In its application for the freight grant, the Maine Department of Transportation said the project would double the cargo capacity at the port, which provides a critical trade connection to Canada, Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Read the story.


Cooperative’s finances took a hit in May, but still stable

Finances for Community Health Options got a bit cloudier in May, but the cooperative health insurer is still on target overall with its plan to stabilize finances, the Maine Bureau of Insurance said Wednesday. The bureau is closely monitoring the finances of the Lewiston-based insurer after it posted a $31 million loss in 2015, a year after being the only insurance cooperative set up under the federal Affordable Care Act to turn a profit. The agency publishes monthly reports on Community Health Options’ performance. The cooperatives are intended to provide competition so that for-profit and established insurers don’t dominate the health insurance market. Community Health Options is a nonprofit that provides coverage to nearly 83,000 people, about 85 percent of whom live in Maine, with the rest in New Hampshire. In its latest monthly statement, the bureau said the net loss in May was 25.7 percent worse than the target set in a plan to help keep the cooperative’s losses within a $43 million reserve fund. The fund was established last year to help the cooperative avoid another big loss in 2016. Through the end of May, the draw-down from that reserve was 6.1 percent less than projected in the plan. Read the story.


Invest firm buying Lewiston internet provider

Oxford Networks, which provides the infrastructure for fiber-optic high-speed internet services, is being purchased by Oak Hill Capital Partners. Oak Hill said in a news release Thursday that after the transaction closes, Oxford Networks will be combined with FirstLight Fiber, another fiber-optics provider in the Northeast that Oak Hill is in the process of purchasing from Riverside Partners. Novacap and Bank Street Capital Partners, the current owners of Oxford Networks, will continue as minority partners in the combined company, as will Riverside Partners, the companies announced. Lewiston-based Oxford Networks began as a local phone company more than a century ago. It purchased Bay Ring Communications last year and now has a network that reaches as far south as Boston. The combined Oxford Networks and FirstLight will have a network with more than 4,800 miles of fiber-optic cables and 10 data centers in New York and New England. Oxford Networks, which employs about 120, operates primarily in Maine, southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. Read the story.


New England’s use of solar advances while Maine waffles

Solar energy is expected to supply roughly 3 percent of New England’s power each year by 2025, and serve more than 20 percent of the demand during peak daytime periods in the spring and fall, according to the latest calculations by the region’s power grid operator. Millions of solar modules, mostly on the roofs of homes and businesses, could trim the amount of power needed from conventional plants late on hot summer afternoons by 1,062 megawatts, ISO New England says. That’s the equivalent of some of the region’s larger generating stations, more than the Wyman Station oil-fired plant in Yarmouth. But lacking development incentives, Maine solar producers are not big players in this emerging landscape, even as state regulatory authorities examine how solar generators should be credited for their contributions to the grid. Despite Maine’s minor contributions, this trend already has begun. ISO New England recently highlighted data from a sunny day in May of 2015, as an example, when the sun was displacing 900 megawatts of capacity that otherwise would have come from conventional power plants. This new picture of solar’s role in the New England energy mix is emerging just as the Maine Public Utilities Commission is opening a case to review what’s commonly known as net metering, the rule by which utilities credit small customers who generate power and feed it into the grid. The PUC inquiry will consider potential changes to the rate that customers now get for this power, whether existing customers should be “grandfathered” from any changes, and whether solar-electric panels should be treated differently than other eligible resources, such as small-scale hydroelectric dams. The PUC hasn’t set a date by which it will decide the net metering case, but has asked that comments be filed by July 22. Read the story.


New store extends trend of independent booksellers in Portland

Two booksellers with Maine roots are bringing a new bookstore to Portland this fall, reflecting a back-to-the-future trend: the return of the independent bookshop. When Emily Russo and Josh Christie open Print: A Bookstore at the base of Munjoy Hill around Oct. 1, the city will have four independent stores selling new books. That translates to roughly six stores per 100,000 people, although that doesn’t hold a candle to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which has 25 bookstores per 100,000 people, more than any city in the world, according to a study by the World Cities Cultural Forum. In an era when online retailing, led by behemoth Amazon, was supposed to kill the independent bookstore, the segment is instead very much alive and kicking. The American Booksellers Association, a national trade group that represents independent bookstores, said it has 1,775 members, an increase of more than 300 since 2009 and a jump of 63 in the last year alone. And many independent booksellers operate in more than one location, said Dan Cullen, a spokesman for the organization. He noted that the number of stores operated by member companies has grown by nearly 40 percent in the past seven years, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,311 this year. Read the story.


Parent of Barber Foods taking the company public

The parent company of a local producer of frozen stuffed chicken entrées hopes to raise $492 million through an initial public offering. Cincinnati-based AdvancePierre Foods Holdings Inc., a national producer and distributor of sandwiches, sandwich components and other entrées and snacks, announced Wednesday that intends to sell 21,390,000 shares of common stock with a price is expected to be between $20 and $23 per share. The money raised through the IPO would be used to pay off a portion of a $1.3 billion loan, according to a release from the company. AdvancePierre employs about 300 people at its plant in Portland where frozen, stuffed chicken entrées are made and distributed under the Barber Foods label. The facility is one of 10 within AdvancePierre’s operation. Read the story.


Regulators adopt new rules to mitigate bait shortage

State regulators are taking steps to avert a crippling shortage of the most popular bait fish used by Maine lobstermen before the height of the season begins next month. The dozen offshore trawlers that hunt for Atlantic herring in federal waters off Georges Bank are not catching much yet. In an effort to meet the demand for lobster bait, a few of these larger boats have changed their gear and joined the state’s much smaller, traditional purse seine herring fleet that fishes Maine’s coastal waters, said Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson of the state Department of Marine Resources. But regulators quickly realized that fishermen were running through the inshore fishing quota too fast, threatening to hit their summer limit before peak lobster season begins in August. Fishermen have landed about 25 percent of the 19,400 metric tons of herring they are allowed to catch inshore during the summer, Mendelson said. At this time last year, fishermen had only caught about 20 percent of the summer quota. On Saturday, after meeting with industry representatives this week, the department will issue new herring rules that will loosen some of the fishing restrictions enacted this spring to try to stretch the inshore summer quota and give the fleet the flexibility that it says it needs to supply a steady but moderate supply of bait. Read the story.