FUELING NEW HIRES; Wood pellet manufacturer in Corinth is..

This story was published on March 24, 2007 on Page B1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

CORINTH – Corinth Wood Pellets, the largest single pellet manufacturing plant in the United States, held its grand opening Friday.

After 16 months of planning and preparation, owner Ken Eldridge said he’s ready to start next week producing an estimated 140,000 tons of wood pellets per year that will be sold both domestically and overseas.

“We were going to start today, but we lost our 125-horsepower motor,” he said Friday before the event.

The pellets, which are a renewable resource, are burned in stoves as a substitute for oil and other fuels.

The production plant is housed in the former Corinth Products Co. Inc., which closed last August, leaving 21 people without work.

Employees continued working on the motor problem throughout the noontime event, but Eldridge said the first production line should be up and going early next week.

The second phase of the project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, and additional lines will allow the company to produce more than 300,000 tons of pellets a year.

Eldridge has invested $4.5 million in the project and already has about 11 employees working. Another two to four are expected to start next week, and full- and part-time staff could reach 40 by the end of the year.

Some of the new workers come from facilities that recently closed, such as Corinth Products, Moosehead Manufacturing in Dover-Foxcroft and Monson, and the Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill in Old Town.

In addition to the 40 jobs at the factory, another 120 jobs are expected to be created for loggers, truck drivers and others.

“If they can put up with us, we can give people jobs,” Eldridge said with a laugh.

Corinth Pellets currently is reviewing applications, and Eldridge said the positions require a lot of mechanical skills.

“Everybody on that end has got to be a millwright,” he said, pointing toward the far end of the large building where the million-dollar production equipment is located.

As for the business plan, Eldridge said he won’t be operating a retail facility on site.

“We’re producing, we’re not a retailer, but we’ll make sure local people can buy pellets,” Eldridge said. True Value Hardware in Corinth is expected to be a local retailer.

“We’ve got to take care of the people in the state of Maine before we go overseas,” he said.

Eldridge said he anticipates that 20 percent to 30 percent of the pellets will be sold in the United States, with the remainder to be shipped to European markets.

The company’s goal is to keep as much business as possible local, using Maine businesses and people and shipping overseas from Maine ports.

“The market is unbelievable for this product overseas,” Paul Faxon, the company’s operations manager, said at Friday’s event.

His wood supply to produce the pellets is “going to come from everywhere,” Eldridge said. “A lot of local contractors will be bringing stuff in.”

Gov. John Baldacci, along with Economic Development Director John Richardson, gubernatorial adviser Jack Cashman and Town Manager Don Strout were on hand to congratulate Eldridge and welcome the new business to the area.

“Maine is open for business,” Baldacci said. “Businesses are coming into Maine. They’re coming into Corinth, and they’re expanding.”

The governor’s Pine Tree Zone initiative, which offers a tax break to the company, is credited with making the endeavor possible.

“I deal with a lot of challenges sometimes in balancing the budget,” Baldacci said, explaining that there are many social and personal issues that need to be addressed in the state. “[But] people don’t want a handout. People want an opportunity in the morning to get up and go to work.”

Richardson applauded the community for its efforts.

Residents unanimously voted Tuesday to support the company’s effort in obtaining a $400,000 community development block grant to build an additional sawdust storage building, and Strout, along with the Board of Selectmen, has welcomed the business with open arms.

Eldridge said that without the grant, he still intends to move forward and build the storage facility, but the grant money would help him to invest in other parts of the company.

“I think from day one the board and myself have been very supportive,” Strout said. He added that the company is creating jobs and additional tax revenue for the town.

“It would never have happened but for the community spirit that exists here,” Richardson said.