Brewer News

Brewer lands major development

6.02.2007 – Cianbro Corp., a Pittsfield construction company known around the state and the nation, plans to build and run a manufacturing facility that will create 500 or more well-paying jobs at the defunct Eastern Fine Paper Co. mill site.

The skilled workers will not be making paper, but modules — prefabricated, self-standing building structures — that will be shipped out

by barge to industrial clients and joined into larger structures elsewhere.

The plan is to start production on April 1, 2008.

“We’re going to employ 500 people there,” Peter G. Vigue, CEO and president of Cianbro Corp., said this week of the Brewer project. “We want to be conservative. It could be more than that.”

Before the new facility can open, the 100-plus-year-old industrial site needs to be cleaned of hazardous waste — mostly settled ash from decades of papermaking — as well as asbestos and lead paint. The multimillion-dollar project will need state and local permits to go forward. In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is likely to have a say in the dredging of the Penobscot River to accommodate barges at the facility. City and company officials, however, are confident the facility will be up and running in the 10-month time frame.

‘Best use’ of the site

Ever since the South Brewer mill closed in January 2004, laying off the remaining 240 employees, several plans have been proposed to redevelop the 41-acre riverfront site.

None has been as promising as the one proposed by Vigue or would have produced the employment opportunities, City Manager Steve Bost said Thursday.

“It will be the best use of the old Eastern Fine mill site that we can think of,” he said. The project will “bring back industry [to the site] and use of the Penobscot River.”

The proposal made by Vigue was “welcomed immediately,” Bost added later.

The Cianbro project will change the former industrial site into a manufacturing facility that will draw welders, electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and other skilled workers from all over the region to build the steel modules.

The piping, electrical and mechanical components will be installed in the building skeletons on-site before they are shipped out.

“We’ll do it all right here with the local work force — it’s all local people,” said Ernie Kilbride, Cianbro’s vice president of project development.

Vigue said Cianbro could have located the module construction facility anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard or the Gulf Coast, but chose to find a site in Maine because “we recognize the value of the people in the state of Maine.”

The state’s underemployed skilled work force is the main reason Maine was selected, he said. For example, when Cianbro was working on a drill-rig project a few years ago in Portland, “75 percent of the 950 people came every day from north of Augusta,” Vigue said. “It shows you their commitment and willingness to do whatever they could to maintain jobs.”

It’s this untapped work force in central and northern Maine that brought the focus to the Bangor-Brewer area, he said.

Vigue added that subcontractors employed by Cianbro also appreciate and are grateful for the work. “They have never let us down — never.”

After searching the Maine coastline “from Kittery all the way to Eastport,” Brewer was selected for several reasons, Vigue said.

The site has enough room to build the sometimes massive modules. There is access to water to move the structures, and access to the interstate highway system and rail to bring in supplies and move smaller modules. In addition, there are necessary utilities, proximity to a skilled work force, and “above all a welcoming community,” he said.

Manley DeBeck, an 18-year veteran of Eastern Fine and a Brewer city councilor, said he expects many of his former co-workers to apply for jobs.

“A lot of these guys went in different directions, or they’ve gone to work making less because they have no choice … because they have to feed their families,” he said this week. “Between Brewer, Millinocket and Old Town, there is a vast untapped source out there of very highly skilled people.

“I would bet a bunch would give their teeth to work at that site … earning a living wage and benefits,” he said.

When DeBeck was laid off from the mill in 2004, he took a job at the Family Dollar store making “half of what I made at the mill.” He since has moved on to a couple of other jobs, serving as an assistant manager at one, and nine months ago finally landed a sales position that the loves.

‘Huge demand’ for modules

A majority of the mill buildings will start to come down in November. The historic administration building, the power plant and loading dock area on the southern side of the site are expected to remain. The rest of the structures will be razed and a flat cement surface will be laid to construct the modules. For the most part, the fabrication work will be done outdoors.

“The modules can be used for any commercial construction site,” Kilbride said. “There is a huge demand for these types of modules.”

The modules allow for a quick set-up of buildings on construction sites and therefore speedier construction times. The modules will arrive at their destinations wired, with installed pipes and structural fire protection already in place.

The three biggest users of modules now are the pharmaceutical, papermaking and petrochemical industries. Modules also could be used for bridges and other transportation needs, for future nuclear plants and possibly for marine facilities.

The reason behind the fairly short 10-month set-up time frame for the Brewer project is that there is a client Cianbro is in the “final stages of negotiation with,” Vigue said, adding, “We’ve already had conversations with others.”

The Cianchette building on Dirigo Drive, headquarters for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, was built using modules, he said.

Once up and running, the Brewer Module Facility, as it tentatively is called, will be one of only five on the Gulf Coast and East Coast, Vigue said.

Some of the modules that will be built are 60 feet — or five stories — high. They can be as wide as 120 feet and weigh up to 1,200 tons, which would make transporting them by rail or road impossible, Vigue said.

“The materials are brought in mostly by barge, sometimes truck,” Kilbride said. “One barge load [of finished product] will go out every 2½ to three months.”

Incoming barges, loaded with steel and piping, are expected to arrive on the Penobscot River every four months or so, he said.

“They’re really assembling the products,” said D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer’s economic development director. “It’s no different than ZF Lemforder,” the city’s largest employer.

South Brewer Redevelopment, a limited liability corporation created by the City Council in 2004 to own and operate the former mill site, will maintain ownership to keep federal and state cleanup funds rolling in. Once the funds are used, it’s expected that Cianbro will take over ownership.

The city is planning to make the riverfront site a Pine Tree Zone and there is a possibility of tax increment financing, Tanya Pereira, Brewer’s economic development specialist, said Thursday while giving a tour of the empty mill.

“I would say a project of this magnitude probably warrants it,” she said of the possible tax incentives. “No decision has been made.”

The new facility’s massive deep-water dock will be owned by Brewer and will be available for other regional companies to use, Main-Boyington said.

When Tom Niemann, the city’s selected developer for the site, heard that more than 500 people would be put to work if Cianbro took over the site, he decided to step back and allow the city to pursue the idea, which makes him “a gem,” both Main-Boyington and Vigue said.

‘It’s going to be great’

South Brewer Redevelopment has been working with the state to complete a remediation plan for cleanup of the site, Main-Boyington said, and “we can’t do anything until the state gives us approval on that.” The remediation plan is designed to ensure that all areas of the redevelopment are up to environmental standards.

The cleanup is expected to start in mid-July, a month later than first expected because of a 30-day public comment period, Main-Boyington said.

“It’s a challenging site,” Vigue said. “There is a lot to be done, but when it’s done, it’s going to be great.”

The average wage for skilled laborers at Cianbro is now $19 an hour, plus benefits and cost sharing, since the company is employee-owned. For those who are not skilled, the company has an education program in place.

“If [you] want to learn to be a welder, we’ll train you and educate you,” Vigue said. “All we’re asking you to do is invest your time to learn to do it.”

The company already is working with a majority of the technical high schools in the state and has ties to the community colleges and the University of Maine. Vigue said he expects all of them to be sources of employees.

Top wage earners at Cianbro make nearly $30 an hour, and with overtime, Vigue said, “it’s not unusual for an hourly worker to make between $75,000 and $100,000 yearly.”

Well-paying jobs are a part of his vision to improve the state’s economy, but the biggest part is providing a place for Mainers to work in-state and be proud of the job they do, Vigue said.

“It’s the right thing to do and it’s an important thing to do,” he said. “There is more to it than us. Everybody wins. It’s a win-win here and most of all the people deserve it.

“If we don’t do it, who will?”

A copyright story from the Bangor Daily News, Saturday, June 2, 2007.