Chicago economy

Chicago entrepreneur wants to revive old mill in rural Maine town

A Chicago entrepreneur has ambitious plans to turn an old sawmill in Bingham into a plywood factory that could eventually employ 100 people, but has yet to find enough financing to run the equipment.

Charlie Martin, who has decades of experience in the forest industries in the United States and Canada, plans to commission the plant, called Maine Plywood USA, by next spring. The goal is to use Maine’s abundant supply of poplars and red maples to supply the country with plywood to lay under floors.

China produces almost 60% of the plywood in the world. Maine Plywood is believed to be the only company in New England to manufacture the plywood underlayment, according to Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, an industry group. The factory could use more than 100,000 tons of poplar per year.

Martin himself had imported foreign plywood and sold it before he saw an opportunity in Maine’s supply of poplar, which is used in pulp. He contacted economic development agencies across the state and the Somerset Economic Development Corp. thought his idea might work at Bingham.

“He was already selling the plywood, and that piqued my ears,” said Christian Savage, executive director of the development agency. “He was looking to replace foreign imports with Maine-made products and create a new market for poplar.”

Savage said the potential for 100 direct jobs at the factory is significant because it could support another 500 indirect jobs for Somerset County, which typically has an unemployment rate about 2 percentage points above the average for the state. The city, which had a population of 866 in 2020, also lost population, down 6% from the previous decade. A new employer could help attract workers, he said.

“This project will have a significant impact,” Savage said.

The Quimby sawmill was a major employer in the town until it closed in 2006, when it was sold, dismantled and shipped to Siberia. Another company tried to move into the factory, but it too closed about 12 years ago, leaving the buildings to fall into disrepair.

Martin has already hired a general manager, a project manager and two other employees to repair the plant and assemble and install the equipment. He will need 15 more people to start operations making veneer, thinner boards that are glued together to make plywood. About three weeks later, when there is a stock of veneer, he will need 15 more people to make the plywood. He expects to attract employees from paper mills that have closed or are about to close, such as Jay Paper Mill in 2023.

When the factory has those two shifts, it could be the biggest employer in town.

“We will be the only company in New England to manufacture this plywood product,” he said.

Martin now owns the factory building after repaying the taxes on it. He invested $1 million of his own money to repair the building, install a new electrical system, and move and assemble used equipment he purchased from an old factory in Quebec.

He managed to get some good breaks in the process. He was able to buy a machine that another company couldn’t use but paid him $1.5 million and sold him for $500,000. It’ll cost an extra $150,000 to put it together, but it’s still less than half the original price.

With a new boiler, electrical system, roof and equipment package, Martin said he would need about $5 million in total to get the plant started. He himself invested 20%. Somerset County awarded the company $50,000. The Future Forest Economy Initiative awarded a $369,000 grant to the Somerset Economic Development Corp. to purchase kiln equipment which it will in turn lease to Maine Plywood.

To achieve his goals, Martin is always looking for money from other public programs, private investors and bankers.

“Charlie has his work cut out for him,” said Dana Doran, executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. “But hats off to him for taking the initiative and having the courage to come to a state he’s not from and try to get through it. We’d like to see more people do that.