Brewer News

Former Eastern Fine workers asked about Cianbro plan

5.08.2007 – For Roy Mayhew, who worked at the Eastern Fine Paper Co. mill in Brewer for 35 years, talking about his former job is still difficult. And he’s not alone.

“It’s awful to get emotional about an old place of work,” Mayhew said earlier this week from his home. At times, there would be silence on the telephone line as he composed himself.

“Obviously, I thought a lot about working for Eastern Fine,” he said. “I worked there a long time. I’m sad it didn’t stay a papermaking facility.”

Even so, he said he was pleased when he heard that Cianbro Corp., a Pittsfield construction company, plans to create 500-plus well-paying jobs at the defunct mill site. When Eastern Fine closed in January 2004, he was one of the 240 employees displaced.

“I’m glad that something is going in there rather than a shopping mall,” Mayhew said. “It’s sad to see the place demolished, but I’m glad to see that there will be some job opportunities. That really means something. It’s expensive to live up here.”

Peter Vigue, CEO and president of Cianbro Corp., announced plans last week to renovate the former mill site into a manufacturing facility to produce steel modules — prefabricated and pre-wired, self-standing building structures — that will be shipped out by barge to industrial clients elsewhere, who will then join the modules together on site.

The Cianbro project will draw welders, electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and other skilled workers from all over the region to build the multisize steel modules.

Vigue said a big part of his plan is to tap into the underemployed people in the Bangor and Brewer area, saying the project not only will provide those folks with well-paying jobs, but also will be a place to educate young people and keep them in Maine.

“We believe we have about 10 years to be able to transfer the knowledge and skills from the baby boomers to Generation X and Generation Y,” he said. “It’s not just about today, it’s about the next generation.”

Mayhew, who is working at a Waterville mill, has no plans to apply for a job with Cianbro, but he expects other former Eastern Fine workers will.

Peter Coppa, who served as president of Eastern Fine’s labor union before it disbanded in mid-2004, said Monday he may apply to work at the Brewer facility, “even though I don’t have the skills required.” He said he’s now “working as a summer temp” and even after three years is bitter about the closure, but added, “It’s all water over the dam.

“I have nothing but praise for Peter Vigue and the effort he put in trying to keep our mill open,” Coppa said. “He’s a great man. It’s a great thing for the city of Brewer and for the state.”

After the mill closed, many of the displaced Eastern Fine workers still hoped the mill would be reopened, Coppa has said. In addition to the 240 employees who lost their jobs in 2004, another 125 people were laid off there in May 2003.

A mill had been operating on the 41-acre South Brewer site since 1889, and both Mayhew and Coppa are extremely proud of the paper they made while working for Eastern Fine. The two former Eastern Fine workers toured the empty industrial site Thursday. Mayhew wore a blue and gray fleece jacket with “Eastern Paper” and the company logo embroidered on the front, and Coppa sported an Eastern Fine company cap.

Neither had seen the inside of the building since they were laid off three years ago.

They reacted solemnly with words such as “sad,” “wow” and “amazing” and took deep breaths that left their lungs slowly when seeing the ransacked interior. When reaching the vacant spot that once held the No. 1 paper machine, both stopped in their tracks.

“It’s not easy to come in and look at this facility,” Mayhew said, standing inside the barren finishing area of the mill. “When you look down through here you see the machines and the people working on the machines. It was full of people — full of life.

“I can still see ’em,” he said in a thick Maine accent.

The two former millworkers had to use flashlights to see in many spots within the mostly brick building, while holes in the roof and dingy windows provided some light. They walked past peeling paint, over discarded pieces of equipment, through puddles of dirty water and still were amazed by the emptiness at every corner.

“They just went in and took what they wanted and left the rest,” Coppa said. Being in the building “just brings back a lot of memories, and it’s kind of sad, really.”

During the tour, Mayhew found his old electrician’s locker that still bears a green sticker with his name and nickname, “No. 1 Brain,” still affixed, and Coppa surveyed where he once worked finishing the mill’s fine paper. About halfway through the tour of the 336,000-square-foot site, the two began telling stories of the old days with smiles on their faces. It appears the camaraderie remains, even though the company is gone and the facility is empty.

It’s this brotherhood and fellowship they miss the most.

They also commented on how upset they are about how the mill closed. They and other millworkers, including Newburgh resident Scott Reglin, a 20-year Eastern Fine veteran who is disabled from a fall at the mill, are still resentful about the mill’s demise. Reglin described the closure as a “roller-coaster ride” during a Monday phone interview.

However, he added that he worked for Cianbro for two years, and “if something is going to happen in the manufacturing line, I’m glad to see it’s a Maine-based company.”

Because of his disability, Reglin said he would not be able to apply for a Brewer job.

Candy Guerette, Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce president, called Cianbro’s plans “an innovative sort of state-of-the-art use of that facility, working with the assets that that facility offers — the river, the railroad, the work force.”

“Cianbro has been a company that has always cared deeply about the Maine economy, and you see that in how they treat their employees and with the quality of the work that they do,” Guerette said. “It’s wonderful to have a company like that take over.”

For people who “want a career,” there are positions available at Cianbro and access to educational opportunities, Vigue said.

“We’re actually, on an ongoing basis, hiring people and have been all year,” he said.

The old mill buildings will begin coming down in November 2007, and the company is planning to start producing the modules on April 1, 2008, Vigue said.

For Mayhew and other longtime millworkers, there still is a sense of loss from the closure of Eastern Fine three years ago.

“I’ve been in there more than I was at home,” Mayhew said. “It’s kind of like your second family after all that time.”

Mayhew, a 60-year-old electrician, started at Eastern Fine as a young man in 1969. After the mill closed in 2004, he was employed as a summertime part-timer at the International Paper mill in Bucksport before taking a job at Huhtamaki Food Service Inc. in Waterville in September of that year, a job he still holds.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “Most of them [his former co-workers], but not all, have had to settle for something with quite a bit less pay.

“I would say anyone who has a mediocre-paying job is going to apply” for a Cianbro job in Brewer, Mayhew said.

A copyright story from the Bangor Daily News, Friday, June 8, 2007, BDN writer Aimee Dolloff contributed to this report.