MANUFACTURING

Howe and Howe vies for $1 billion Army contract

A Maine robotics company is in the running to build the Army’s next generation of battlefield support vehicles. Waterboro-based Howe and Howe Technologies is competing with three other firms for a massive government contract to build autonomous vehicles that will carry ammunition and supplies into combat with Army ground forces. The Army is expected to order thousands of the units by 2020, a contract that would be worth $1 billion. The company already completed extensive field tests of its RS2-H1 battlefield support vehicle in Georgia to get to this stage of the competition, beating major defense companies like Lockheed Martin and AM General, which builds the Humvee, and moving onto the next phase of product development. Read more.

REAL ESTATE & DEVELOPMENT

Strong home sales on pace to break last year’s record

Sales of existing single-family homes in Maine increased by double digits in November, putting them on pace to break last year’s all-time high record. Real estate agents across the state sold 1,576 homes in November, an increase of 11.5 percent from a year earlier, according to a report issued Wednesday by Maine Listings. The median sale price for those homes rose 4.2 percent to $200,000 from November 2016. Through November, the number of home sales statewide in 2017 has exceeded the best-ever 2016 by 0.6 percent, said Greg Gosselin, president of the Maine Association of Realtors. Nationally, home sales increased by 3.2 percent in November compared with a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors. Read more.

Cianbro plans to hire 300 to keep up with projects

Buoyed by several new projects in its pipeline, Pittsfield-based construction company Cianbro Corp. is looking to hire 300 additional workers in 2018. The company, which already employs 1,350 people in Maine, said Thursday it was looking for new hires in a number of jobs and trades needed for large projects across the state, such as a federal contract from the U.S. Navy to make improvements to a dry dock at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Pete Vigue, Cianbro chairman and CEO, said the company has secured a number of projects, many of them in Maine ranging from Kittery to Bangor, which prompted the call for workers. Vigue said the new workers will be full-time, long-term employees. Positions run the full gamut, including millwrights, project managers, superintendents, iron workers, construction workers, surveyors, electricians, pipe fitters, structural and pipe welders and entry-level construction workers. Read more.

Mixed-income housing gets South Portland approval

A $13 million, 64-unit mixed-income housing project approved for Westbrook Street in South Portland could be on track to have tenants move in by September 2019. The Planning Board Tuesday night unanimously approved the final plan application from Avesta Housing for the five-story, mixed-use project at 586-600 Westbrook St. Design plans include four floors of rental housing, ranging from studios to three- bedroom apartments, above a 4,000-square-foot retail area on the first floor. An office space for the Opportunity Alliance’s Neighborhood Resource Hub will also occupy the first floor. Read more.

TRANSPORTATION

Bill could pave the way for driverless public buses

A bill before the Legislature would help set the stage for putting self-driving buses on the streets of Portland and other Maine communities within the next five years. The proposal, sparked by the Portland city manager’s interest in autonomous transit, is the first piece of Maine legislation to deal specifically with self-driving vehicles, according to Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, House chairman of the Transportation Committee. Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, this fall sponsored L.R. 2611, which would allow towns and cities to start pilot programs in partnership with state agencies. The bill would allow communities to develop, test and operate pilot programs using autonomous vehicles for public transportation. Pilot programs would require a written agreement between the municipality, secretary of state, Maine Department of Transportation and Bureau of Insurance. Cities and towns would have until March 2022 to enter into such an agreement. It will likely be debated in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee during the session starting in January, Sanborn said. Read more.

Jetport to add direct flights to Chicago starting in June

American Airlines will offer daily flights from Portland to Chicago beginning in June, the newest nonstop service offered by the largest carrier at Portland International Jetport. The airline plans two trips a day to Chicago O’Hare International Airport between June and October, said Assistant Airport Director Zach Sundquist. Flights to Chicago on 70-seat regional jets will start June 7. United Airlines has two daily nonstop trips from Portland to O’Hare and Southwest Airlines runs a special Saturday service to Chicago’s Midway International Airport during the summer. Additional flights to Chicago will also give passengers more connections to cities west of the Mississippi River, Sundquist said. While Portland has good connections to U.S. cities in the Northeast and South, it is trying to boost western flights, he said. Read more.

MARIJUANA

Legal pot has become a popular holiday gift

Marijuana’s newly legal status is a source of Yuletide celebration in four states. Voters in California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana last year, and some residents of those states will legally stuff stockings with joints for the first time this Christmas. Because retail sales are operating in only one of those states – Nevada – marijuana advocates said homegrown marijuana is a particularly popular gift. Statistics about legal sales of marijuana suggest a modest bump around the holidays. In the four states where it was already legal, it has been “generally a good month,” slightly ahead of November and January, said Roy Bingham, chief executive officer of BDS Analytics, a firm that compiles data about the pot industry. Read more.

Retail ban on pot sales under debate in OOB

A proposal to prohibit retail marijuana businesses in Old Orchard Beach drew just four people to a local hearing Tuesday, but they had strong opinions. Those speakers, and two that submitted written comments, were split over whether to enact an outright ban on adult-use marijuana shops, testing labs, manufacturing or grow houses or whether a moratorium would suffice. Town Manager Larry Mead said towns like Old Orchard Beach are still waiting for the Legislature to set up the rules of the recreational market before it decides if it wants to adopt its own rules to allow such businesses in town. A local prohibition ordinance could be repealed if the town decides it wants to write local rules to allow marijuana businesses. The Town Council is likely to consider the issue at its Jan. 2 meeting. Read more.

GENERAL BUSINESS

Jobless rate of 3.3 percent continues state’s low streak

November’s unemployment rate of 3.3 percent continues a long stretch of the state’s jobless rate landing well below 4 percent. The Maine Department of Labor said the November rate is down slightly from 3.5 percent for October and 3.8 percent from a year ago. It is the 26th consecutive month that the unemployment rate has been below 4 percent. The U.S. preliminary unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for November was unchanged from October and down from 4.6 percent one year ago. The unemployment rates for New England states are expected to be released Friday. Read more.

Recycler cautions about risks of lithium battery disposal

Solid-waste company ecomaine is reminding consumers about the danger of mixing lithium-ion batteries with trash and recycling, issuing the warning after identifying the battery in a discarded laptop as the likely cause of a dangerous fire at its Portland plant this month. The Dec. 1 blaze likely started when a rechargeable laptop battery combusted after it was damaged, igniting piles of recycling material, ecomaine CEO Kevin Roche said. The fire took 40 minutes to extinguish – making it one of the company’s most persistent fires – and it could have been much worse, he said. It was the second time in as many weeks that a lithium-ion battery had sparked a fire at the company’s plant. Read more.

– From staff and wire reports