Threats to reduce visa program worry tourism-related businesses

Nonprofit agencies that sponsor foreign students in Maine and the businesses that hire them are worried that the Trump administration is preparing to gut a visa program that promotes cultural exchange and fills critical labor gaps during the summer tourism season. The White House is reportedly seeking to dramatically reduce or eliminate five categories of the J-1 visa that allow international college students to temporarily work in the United States. Maine businesses hire thousands of foreign students every year for seasonal jobs at amusement parks, hotels and summer camps; last year there were 4,300 such J-1 visa holders in Maine. The concern is especially acute among communities with a robust summer tourism economy, such as Old Orchard Beach, Ogunquit and Bar Harbor. Read the story.

State workers drop mandatory union fees

Two of the largest unions for state workers voted to ratify new two-year contracts Wednesday that increase wages by 6 percent while giving Gov. Paul LePage a long-sought victory in his effort to eliminate mandatory union fees for state workers. Members of the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union approved contracts that eliminate a requirement that all state workers pay fees to the union, even if they choose not to become members. The unions collect the fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining and other services, including lobbying the Legislature. Workers will still be allowed to join the unions and pay voluntary union dues. Read the story.


Cutler resigns from overseeing new professional graduate center

After two years, Eliot Cutler has resigned from his position heading up efforts to create a new Portland-based graduate center for the University of Maine System. Cutler, a two-time gubernatorial candidate with deep ties to the business and legal communities in Maine, said his last day was Thursday. Cutler said he does not plan to run for governor in 2018. Cutler is being replaced by George Campbell, president of the University of Southern Maine Foundation, who will be the interim CEO of the new center, USM President Glenn Cummings said. Read the story.


CashStar sold for $175 million

Portland-based CashStar Inc. has been acquired by a publicly traded financial technology firm for $175 million. Blackhawk Network Holdings Inc. of Pleasanton, California, paid cash for the Maine company, which provides digital gift card services to retailers. CashStar has been a privately held company since it was founded in Portland in 2008. It will be folded into Blackhawk, which trades on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol HAWK. Blackhawk’s market capitalization, the total value of its shares, is roughly $2.5 billion. CashStar CEO Ben Kaplan said the company will retain the CashStar name for the immediate future, and that CashStar will remain in its current offices in Maine and Massachusetts and become part of Blackhawk’s digital and incentives businesses. Kaplan will continue to lead the business as a group vice president of Blackhawk. Read the story.


Feds issue $1.5 million grant to boost aquaculture

The U.S. Department of Commerce is investing $1.5 million to support the development of Maine’s aquaculture industry. The grant from the Economic Development Administration will be used by the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine in Orono for improvements, and to increase the availability of incubator space. The money will help the center demolish and replace its deteriorated pier, renovate the Flowing Seawater Laboratory, upgrade the flowing seawater system, and add three new business incubation laboratory spaces. The improvements will ensure the continuing availability of marine environmental and ecosystem data essential to the management of Maine’s coastal fisheries, and the long-term health as well as sustainability of the commercial fishing economy, according to the Commerce Department. Read the story.


LePage stumps for exemption on lumber tariffs

Gov. Paul LePage has asked the Trump administration to exempt eastern Canadian provinces from softwood lumber tariffs that he says will lead to layoffs and shut down operations in Maine. The Republican president has argued that Canada unfairly subsidizes its softwood lumber industry, which includes spruce, pine and fir used for everything from home construction to tongue depressors. The Trump administration began collecting preliminary tariffs this year on imported softwood lumber from Canada. A 19.88 percent tariff expired Aug. 26, though most lumber companies still pay a 6.87 percent duty. U.S. commerce and trade officials are investigating the industry and its impact on American producers. U.S. officials have until November to decide whether to reinstate the tariffs. Read the story.


Hospital ends obstetrics services

The decision to end obstetrics services at Calais Regional Hospital is continuing to cause controversy in the Down East border town of 3,000 along the St. Croix River. Hospital officials announced in May that they were being forced to close the obstetrics department this year to stave off deep financial problems that threaten the hospital’s survival. The final baby born in the obstetrics department was discharged from the hospital Tuesday. The Calais hospital is representative of the financial struggles of many rural hospitals, officials said. More than 80 of them have closed nationwide since 2010, according to the National Rural Health Association, leaving local residents farther away from hospital services. Other hospitals, like the one in Calais, have ended money-losing services in efforts to have sufficient finances to keep operating. Read the story.


Wex hopes to move into new headquarters in early 2019

Now that the Portland City Council has approved a deal that allows Wex Inc. to relocate its headquarters from South Portland to the Portland waterfront, the company hopes to break ground on the project this year and begin transferring employees to the new location in early 2019. But before its plans can be finalized, Wex must complete negotiations with the developer who will build its headquarters, Jonathan Cohen of 0 Hancock Street LLC, and await Portland Planning Board approval for the project, company executives said. CEO Melissa Smith said the company, which provides payment-processing services to businesses, hopes the Planning Board process will go smoothly. The Portland City Council voted unanimously Aug. 21 to sell a 48,000-square-foot parcel of land near the eastern waterfront for $3.3 million to Cohen, who has an agreement to construct a 100,000-square-foot office building for Wex along with some retail space on the first floor and an adjacent parking lot. Smith said Cohen expects to go before the Planning Board in early September. The sale is expected to close by Oct. 1. Read the story.

Casino backer withdraws from campaign

Facing increasing scrutiny by the Legislature and the Maine ethics commission, a Miami real estate developer who appears to have been the main conduit of funding for the campaign to build a casino in York County said Wednesday that she is withdrawing from the effort. Soon after Lisa Scott issued a statement announcing her decision, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 5-0 to continue its investigation into the sources of $4.3 million that were spent on gathering signatures of registered Maine voters to put the casino proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot. The proposed wording of the casino proposal reads: “Do you want to allow a certain out-of-state company to operate table games and/or slot machines in York County, subject to state and local approval, with part of the profits going to specific programs?” Language in the underlying legislation, which is not printed on the ballot, effectively stipulates that Shawn Scott, Lisa Scott’s brother, is the only eligible applicant for the casino license. Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said the commission was not aware of Lisa Scott’s announcement when it voted Wednesday morning and that it would have no bearing on the investigation. Read the story.