Strengthing Maine’s sawmills

When MFPC’s Manufacturing Committee sat down with Gov. Paul LePage last fall, it felt very much like sitting down at the table and discussing business with a businessman.

“We had a very good meeting with the Governor,” said Luke Brochu, chairman of our Manufacturing Committee. “He heard us out on our issues and I went away feeling that he would support us if and when we need him.”

The committee’s report – Maine Sawmills Recommendations to Strengthen Maine’s Competitive Position – and the meeting were in response to the governor’s request for ideas to make Maine’s sawmill industry stronger.

Committee members met at 1 p.m. to edit a sawmill report summary of their report for the 3 p.m. meeting in the governor’s Cabinet Room on Oct. 15. The report was completed last December, but the committee members know the issues — they all live the issues –so all they needed was to agree on their approach.

There were some differences of opinion, a lot of decision-making and discussion, but everybody knew we had a tight timeline and they were able to get through it efficiently.

The meeting itself was very much a high-powered event. In addition to Gov. LePage, it was attended by Commissioner George Gervais of the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD); Commissioner Walt Whitcomb of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Rosaire Pelletier, DECD’s specialist on the forest products industry; John Butera, senior economic advisor to the governor, and Carlisle McLean, the governor’s legal counsel and senior natural resources policy advisor.

“The governor showed us how much importance he places on our industry by the people he had there representing his administration,” said Jim Robbins Sr. of Robbins Lumber.

We had a powerful group of people there as well (see list of attendees). The governor knew he was dealing with a credible group. We were not rushed; we had more than an hour of his time.

With the governor at the head of the table, Brochu ran the meeting and he did a masterful job. He started by thanking Gov. LePage for his efforts to:

  • Streamline regulations
  • Lower tax rates
  • Reform LURC
  • Support a forest products position at DECD
  • Discuss with us ways to improve conditions for Maine’s forest products industry.

Brochu was very diplomatic, kept the conversation going and handed off to the various people we had delegated to speak on specific issues. And everybody really had a chance to talk.

We brought up many different issues – at one point we wondered if there were too many. But the governor was very responsive, seemed to understand each issue and told us about what his administration was doing. He took notes, seemed very interested and came up with ideas and follow-up suggestions.

I think it was clear to everyone attending that the governor certainly understands our business and actually has direct experience working in our field.

“I thought that the meeting was very productive,” Robbins said. “He certainly impressed us that he wants to help us and understands our industry. “

We went in with energy costs as our top issue. It’s a complicated subject and there was some strong discussion about it, but it was a good business discussion.

The governor made it clear that we needed to be involved in the discussion about power costs and his plan to bring more hydropower into the region. It’s also was clear that we need to work on our collective policy platform on energy. We must balance the opportunities for diversification of our industries with biomass power markets and the overall cost to the state and manufacturers for support of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

He was clearly focused on lower energy costs for Maine manufacturers. We had a good discussion about the interdependence of sawmills to markets for sawdust, biomass from bark and paper mill chips from slab wood.

“The governor made it very clear that he wants some help from us to help him lobby for bills to get our power costs down and to eliminate the 100 KW cap on what is considered green energy from hydro,” Robbins said. “I think we definitely need to help him on this.”

We also discussed the need to find qualified workers for manufacturing occupations. The modernization of our facilities has reduced the total number of employees, but production has dramatically increased. An aging work force is also creating opportunities for young workers to build careers in the forest industry.

The governor reiterated his belief that we need to do more to build educational and training opportunities for manufacturing workers. Mill owners expressed concern about the opportunities and training in their communities and the need to build stronger communities with good jobs. These concerns dovetailed with the governor’s desire to build more training capacity through our education systems and the members offered to help with this agenda.

He also said he and his staff want to help if any members want to bring more business to Maine through expansion of their facilities or by bringing new manufacturers to town.

We left the meeting with several next steps in different areas:

  • We are going to talk about energy issues with Ken Fletcher, director of the Governor’s Energy Office.
  • We’ll be working with DECD on some of the projects we’ve talked about initiating.
  • The governor is going to pursue education initiatives that we need to support.

Thanks to meetings like this, we’re getting to know and appreciate the governor. He didn’t hold back any punches when he was concerned about something and while we were diplomatic, we pushed on some issues as well. He recognizes that we can provide opportunities in Maine. If we have ideas and want to move forward with them and we’re not getting where we need to go with government, he wants to know about it personally. That was a pretty strong statement on his part.

We’ll be working to compile our vision for Maine forest economy to help educate incoming legislators. With a supportive administration and a clear plan of action to build and strengthen Maine’s forest economy, there is an opportunity to establish a platform for the future that will help guide Maine policymakers.

“We as an industry need to move ahead as soon as possible while we still have a Governor in the Blaine House who really wants to help the forest industry,” Robbins said.