Gov. Paul LePage’s liaison to the forest products industry does not plan to work with a federal team visiting the state this week as part of an effort to develop an economic plan for the industry.

“Do you think I should run after them?” Rosaire Pelletier said in an interview Thursday. “My focus is on attracting investors to the state of Maine.”

Pelletier’s comments came the same day members of the Economic Development Assessment Team said that it will be critical for state, federal and industry leaders to work together for the project to succeed.

The group of more than two dozen federal officials from eight agencies arrived in Maine on Wednesday for three days with industry leaders to examine the forest products and paper industry.

No state officials are part of the team, even though federal officials say they were invited to participate.

LePage has criticized the team’s presence in the state, labeling it in a statement as part of “another failed stimulus package” from the federal government that he says ignores the real issues facing the industry: tariffs put on Canadian paper imports.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, who requested the visit, have reiterated their support for the EDAT effort despite the lack of state participation. The visit was announced last month in conjunction with a $7.7 million federal grant to be invested in the Maine forest products industry.

“There is no question that we need to be fiscally responsible with our federal tax dollars and smart about the role and influence of the federal government,” Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, said in a statement Thursday. “That said, this is a worthy use of the government’s efforts to move forward opportunities for Maine’s industries and jobs.”

King, an independent senator who participated in discussions with the team Thursday, said it is critical that they understand the challenges the forest products industry faces. Collins, a Republican, has said manufacturing “is the lifeblood of so many of our rural communities, and reinvigorating it requires partnerships.”

Some local officials have said that they are eager to see what the team comes up with.

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand, whose town is home to the Sappi North America paper mill, said Thursday that while she was not familiar with the tariff issue, she sees the EDAT team as a good thing. The team is scheduled to visit the Skowhegan mill Friday.

“It’s great to see that (the federal government) has recognized that we need some assistance in the area,” Almand said.

Industry leaders said Thursday that they have reached out to state officials, but none has become involved.

“I think (their level of involvement) will depend on what initiatives we come up with, but so many projects depend on state agencies playing a supporting role in some way, so we certainly hope that once specific initiatives are identified they will help to push forward,” said Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation and co-chairman of the Maine Forest Economy EDAT Planning Committee.

Breen said he thought the state was taking a “wait and see” approach before getting involved.

Breen said he does not have extensive knowledge of the tariff issue and could not say whether it was a good reason for the state not to be working with the U.S. Department of Commerce on EDAT.

However, co-chairman Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said he sees the two issues as separate. While it is important to address the tariff issue, “I think it’s kind of mixing apples and oranges,” he said.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, and Peter Steele, the governor’s director of communications, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

LePage frequently has blasted legislators for turning a blind eye to the forests products industry’s woes by not supporting his agenda, which he says calls for lowering energy costs to help businesses, particularly paper mills, stay open. His administration also has become directly involved in trying to save shuttered paper mills, including the Bucksport and Lincoln mills that eventually closed and were sold off for scrap.

In a letter released by LePage’s office Wednesday, the governor says he is disappointed at Commerce Department reaction to mill closings in Maine. While the economic team “may be well-intentioned,” LePage said in his letter, the department has placed an “unnecessary burden” on Maine businesses by enacting the tariffs, which were requested by Madison Paper Industries and Verso Corp. in response to illegal subsidies the Nova Scotia provincial government was giving to one company.

Other companies, including Catalyst Paper, which employs about 700 in Rumford, and Irving Paper Ltd., which employs more than 450 in Maine, say they were unfairly grouped in with the Nova Scotia company and now are paying duties to counter illegal subsidies they never received.

In an interview Thursday, Len Posyniak, senior vice president of human resources and corporate services for Catalyst, said that since a tariff of more than 18 percent was placed on the company’s supercalendered paper imports last year, it has had a direct financial impact on the company and its ability to invest in its five mills, including in Rumford.

Posyniak also said he was grateful for the attention the governor has drawn to the issue as his company awaits a review by the Department of Commerce.

Pelletier said he would consider working with the team if it worked on attracting investment to the state’s industry.

“I can’t really say until I see what they come up with,” he said.

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