Dignitaries from both sides of the border were on hand for the grand opening Thursday of Irving Woodland’s Ashland Sawmill, including (from left) Maine Gov. Paul LePage; Jim Irving, co-CEO of the company; and U.S. Sen. Angus King. Presque Isle Star-Herald photo by Kathy McCarty
ASHLAND, Maine — Dignitaries from both sides of the border were on hand Thursday in Ashland to celebrate job creation at four forestry-based businesses in town: shingle manufacturer Ecoshel, the biomass power plant ReEnergy, Irving Woodlands’ Ashland Sawmill and Northeast Pellets.
Town Manager Ralph Dwyer was thrilled with the economic development taking place in his community.
“Ecoshel will have roughly 65 jobs per line, per day, on two shifts, with the potential to add shifts as production/demand goes up. ReEnergy will have about 25 jobs once they’re fully operational — that’s in just a matter of weeks. Irving’s hired about 60,” said Dwyer. “That’s the big thing — the jobs created in this area.”
Ecoshel, which will produce specialty shingle products, was the first stop of the day at about 9 a.m.
“This is the sort of project the governor’s been working on to make Maine better,” said Commissioner George Gervais of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage, whose flight to Aroostook was delayed because of fog.
Brian Kirkey, CEO of Ecoshel, provided a tour of the facility, explaining how he worked with the University of Maine to create state-of-the-art equipment that will reduce waste and improve production.
Officials next gathered outside ReEnergy, a biomass electricity production facility, about 10 a.m. to learn more about the plant and how much power is expected to be produced there.
“The plant has been idle since March 2011. We’re preparing for it to be up later this fall. We’re also celebrating National Bio-Energy Day which is Oct. 22. It makes sense for Maine to be first at that,” said Mark Thibodeau, facility manager.
Thibodeau said it “made sense for Maine to use indigenous resources whenever possible.”
He said once the plant was fully operational, capacity was expected to be about 200,000 MWh per year — enough to supply electricity to over 20,000 homes.
LePage arrived in time to join that celebration.
“In the last four years, [the state] tried to become a partner with the private sector, to create jobs,” said LePage. “ReEnergy will have 25 jobs. The company will be buying millions in product.”
“ReEnergy is the first company in Maine solely devoted to the creation of electricity that has been certified through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative,” he said.
LePage said between Ecoshel, ReEnergy and Irving’s sawmill, the Ashland area was gaining about 140 jobs.
“In addition, Ashland will gain indirect jobs as well. In light of Bucksport’s announcement, we’re gaining jobs here,” said LePage. “We’re changing the culture from ‘no,’ to ‘let’s partner.’”
Sen. Angus King, another participant in Thursday’s events at the area businesses, said during the ReEnergy gathering that he was “glad to be in the boom town of Ashland.”
“We’re creating energy from within Maine, through a source we control. The money stays here. This also helps diversify the energy base,” King said.
Irving’s Ashland Sawmill was next, at about 11 a.m., on the whirlwind tour and had the largest turnout of the day, with about 200 people attending the grand opening of the $35 million manufacturing plant.
“We’ve been a part of Maine’s forestry industry for almost 70 years. We’re committed to family and the state,” said Jim Irving, co-CEO, who attended the event with his son, Alex, his brother, Robert, and his father, J.K. Irving.
Irving credited state and university officials with working with his company on what he called outcome-based forestry.
“We were the only test case in the state. This allows us to be more efficient and competitive,” said Irving. The company prides itself on following strict forest management policies, which include the re-planting of thousands of trees.
Irving said the sawmill employs about 60 people, with that number to increase to about 125 by 2016.
LePage spoke next, praising Irving’s dedication to the region, ranging from Thursday’s grand opening of the state-of-the-art sawmill to the forestry project and the purchasing and subsequent improvements to the rail line in northern Maine.
“Irving’s investing and truly bringing Aroostook back. Using state-of-the-art technology, they’re blending green and dry wood,” said LePage.
“About 63 employees are coming to this facility to work. To grow employment, you need entrepreneurs who think outside the box and take risks,” LePage said.
King said it was a “partnership of government — local and state — as well as various agencies” that made the sawmill project a success and something that “no one can do by themselves.”
“It’s a matter of the four P’s: partnership, perseverance, patience, and the L.L. Bean philosophy of giving people a quality product at an affordable price. The Irving family has always been tough, fair and honest — not only to themselves but to the spirit of a community,” said King.
“We had a tough yesterday,” King said referring to Verso’s announcement it was shutting down its Bucksport paper mill, “but it’s a good day today.”
Northeast Pellets was the last stop of the day at about 1 p.m., with King and other officials getting a tour of the operation, which produces wood pellets for sale by bag or in bulk.