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Maine's Washington County Takes Small Steps Toward Economic Rebirth
03/20/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

More than 19 percent of residents in Washington County live in poverty, according to a recent statewide survey. And the non-seasonlly-adjusted unemployemnt rate is almost 12 percent. They're not the sort of statistics that would suggest that a more prosperous future is around the corner. But there are signs of rebirth in the region. In Eastport, for example, a new lobster storage plant recently opened and a $7 million expansion of the town's deepwater port continues. A tidal energy project is underway in Cobscook Bay. In the second of two reports, Jay Field looks at the growth of smaller-scale entrepreneurial ventures that may hold the key to putting more people Downeast back to work.

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For nearly a century, the locals came to work at the old factory building on the wharf, along Johnson Bay in Lubec. They packed sardines during long shifts that began and ended with the sound of a whistle. And by the early 1900s, theirs was one of 23 canneries in this small town that feels as if it's perched at the end of the earth.

"Watch these steps cause these are tricky," says Van Denbow as he heads down the damp, dark stairwell to the first floor of the old Factory B building at the Lubec Sardine Company. The cannery closed in 2001. "Once the sardine factory shut down, the building was starting to fall in pretty bad," he says.

But in the last few years, Factory B has had an unexpected renaissance. Denbow and I stop in front of an open air lobster tank about the size of a hockey rink. Every day during the season, lobsterman head out in their boats, haul in their traps, bring their catch to the wharf outside and drive off with a check in hand.

"Most of the boats around Lubec and everything sell their lobsters here," he says. "And, like, all kinds of people sell wrinkles here, you know."

But this is not your typical seafood wholesaling business. Denbow, who manages the operation, takes me back up to the main floor of the factory. This used to be one enormous, open space where the sardine packing took place. Now, it's a vacation destination. "Bath there. Bedroom here, bedroom there," he points out. "The other two rooms are pretty much the same thing as this one."

The Inn on the Whart has 12 suites and three apartments sitting atop a working waterfront. Victor Trafford, the inn's owner, grew up in Aroostook County and owns a summer place in Lubec. Trafford says he had a different plan in mind, when he bought the old factory five years ago. "I just thought it was a good investment and my thinking was to sell lots and build houses," he says.

But as Trafford began fixing the place up, his entrepreneurial instincts took over. Researchers who study both poverty and employment trends Downeast say there's much to be learned from the evolution of the Inn on the Wharf.

"Small-scale entrepreneurial stuff that ties in with what the resources are in Washington County is the key to economic development up there," says Ann Acheson, a research associate at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

"I don't think you're going to get large employers," she says. "I mean, there certainly aren't large paper mills being built there anymore or really large manufacturing plants, which never existed there."

The county's potential as a hub for small-scale entrepreneurship is supported by the recent success of other businesses Downeast. Just last week, Michael Cote, the president and CEO of Looks Gourmet Food Company, was named Maine Small Business Owner of the Year. The company, which has 26 employees, sells seafood products under the Bar Harbor Food Brand.

Victor Trafford says business at the Inn on the Wharf has gotten better each year. In 2011, the seafood wholesaling operation brought in roughly $2 million in revenue. The inn already has 600 nights booked. And Trafford is considering adding a new dimension to his business. "I will do some expansion on the seafood part--we'll be doing some more processing," he says.

The Inn on the Wharf has already created lots of seasonal jobs in Lubec doing everything from cleaning guest rooms to working in the restaurant. The expansion into seafood processing will add even more.


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