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Panel touts favorable economic impacts of Nordic project

By Stephanie Grinnell | Jul 31, 2019
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Moderator Trudy Miller and a helper in the audience demonstrate a bell-ringing that signals panelists should wrap up remarks. Sitting, from left, are Sebastian Belle, Keith Pooler, Parker Hadlock, Mike Hurley, Alicia Gaiero and Carter Cyr.

Belfast — A lot of big numbers were flying around the auditorium at University of Maine Hutchinson Center Tuesday night, as a panel discussed the potential economic benefits a large land-based salmon farm could bring to Belfast and surrounding towns.

The event was organized by Bayside resident and Belfast property owner Trudy Miller. She said she immediately had a positive reaction to the announcement more than a year ago that Nordic Aquafarms hoped to build a facility in Belfast, but it was only because of the project's opponents that she felt a need to become actively involved in the community discussion. Miller said the information being spread by opponents “was like being nibbled to death by ducks” — at first, annoying; then destructive.

She said she and School of Fish — a loosely organized group of about a dozen — specifically wanted to call attention to the economic aspects of Nordic’s proposal.

Panelists included former fisherman and current Executive Director of Maine Aquaculture Association Sebastian Belle, Nordic Aquafarms Production Manager Carter Cyr, Belfast resident and University of Maine senior Alicia Gaiero, Cianbro General Manager Parker Hadlock, City Councilor Mike Hurley and Belfast Water District Superintendent Keith Pooler.

In the audience, among others, were Nordic CEO Erik Heim and Maine Commissioner of Economic Development Heather Johnson.

Belle opened the meeting by noting, as a former fisherman, he “witnessed firsthand the destruction” of area fishing grounds in the '70s. Soon after, while in Norway, he began learning about aquaculture. He said in Maine alone, between $80 million and $100 million is generated from aquaculture, with between 650 and 700 full-time, year-round employees.

“There is actually a lot of land-based aquaculture in the state,” Belle said, adding Maine is considered a leader in best management practices and third-party certification. “We have a reputation nationally and internationally.”

He said he envisions in the coming decades a diverse working waterfront with large and small operations as well as diverse species being raised.

Hadlock, an employee of Cianbro for 38 years, estimated that money put back into the local economy by large projects such as Nordic’s totals between five and seven times the value of the project. He noted many object to calling construction jobs permanent.

“We’ve been doing ‘temporary’ work for 70 years and have 4,000 employees,” Hadlock said of Cianbro.

More important, he said, is the learning opportunity for workers.

“It’s a training ground for long-term builders,” Hadlock said. “A project like Nordic’s is wildly important. … It has the bandwidth, the depth, the duration and the skill sets.”

Belle added that the ancillary jobs and industries also are beneficial.

Cyr and Gaiero both talked about potential jobs created by the project, as well. Cyr said all levels, from those with master’s degrees or PhD's to those with high school diplomas are likely to find suitable jobs at Nordic.

“Regardless of your background, if you’ve got good work ethic, we’re going to want to hear from you,” he said, “especially if you live in the area.”

A self-described “fish geek,” Cyr said the potential exists to work with local companies to make use of the salmon byproducts.

“We’re going to be very excited to sell some of that as bait (to lobstermen),” he said, if it becomes an approved bait in Maine. As well, there is the possibility to develop other products such as fish oil and fertilizer. “There’s a multitude of different ways we can up-cycle them.”

Cyr said it is also possible local farmers could be sourced for fish feed grains or insects.

While studying environmental policy and planning, Gaiero said she became fascinated by aquaculture, its potential to boost the entire state’s economy and to attract younger workers.

“How do we make Maine the state of aquaculture?” she asked.

Belle pointed out Cyr and Gaiero both are young people from Maine who hope to remain in the state and involved in aquaculture. He noted the average age in the industry is “going down, not up. It’s pretty cool what’s happening. … It’s the age and the passion and the interest.”

Pooler spoke about the ability of the water district to provide enough water for the business as well as residents. He said Nordic has committed to purchasing 100 million gallons of water per year for at least six years, regardless of the amount used, and may purchase more than 260 million gallons per year. At the minimum, Pooler said, that means a more than $200,000 boost in revenue per year for the Water District. That money will be used for a new facility as well as for upgrades to the aging infrastructure, he said.

“The infrastructure is large enough to deliver the water Nordic needs,” he said. “The pipes are old, but big enough. … We won’t have to spend money on infrastructure to get the water to Nordic Aquafarms.”

In the days of poultry processing, the same water district infrastructure was able to supply 600 million gallons of water per year, according to Pooler, which means there also is plenty of capacity remaining for future development. He said at full build-out, the district will be using 67% of the “safe yield of the aquifer.”

Belfast Water District is a quasi-municipal organization and currently does not pay property taxes on the land Nordic expects to purchase for its facility, he said. He said the company offered the Water District $1 million to purchase the property, and the city — which will retain the walking trail along Little River — will pay the district another $100,000 for its 250-foot-wide sliver of land along the river.

Hurley said, while he was speaking for himself, he also feels he represents the position of the council and city staff. He noted “every councilor, mayor, elected official, city staff support the project” despite the sometimes vitriolic personal attacks.

“Our resolute support has not cracked,” Hurley said. “We believe there is enough water and that the discharge will be clean.”

If he believed otherwise, he said, he would be one of the fiercest opponents.

The main reason Nordic’s proposal has receive city support, Hurley said, is its potential to significantly reduce the property tax rate. He said the first phase of construction — estimated to cost the company $150 million — mostly won’t end up on the tax rolls. But once complete, the facility will add 60% to the total valuation of the city and drop the mil rate by 3.7 points.

“All these businesses and people will get tax relief, and that’s our motivation,” Hurley said.

That increased valuation will certainly reduce the amount of state aid for education, he said, but this one project is the equivalent of 500 new houses at $300,000 each. In the first year, Nordic’s tax bill will be nearly $2 million, Hurley said, which adds up to as much as the city’s top 50 current taxpayers.

“(Currently) we can’t afford a sidewalk from Renys to the new soup kitchen,” he said.

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Comments (4)
Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Aug 01, 2019 07:30

Without any delays when would complete build out occur?

Posted by: Steven Hutchings | Aug 01, 2019 02:41

Raising fish on land in controlled environments which is similar to  raising pork or beef on land, allows the farmer to create a meat product that is organic, healthy and good eating. It is an answer to the effect that global warming has on our native fisheries. The fish farmers like Nordic temporarily use fresh water that is already flowing into the ocean and borrows it, purifies it, filters any fish wastes and except for a small amount of nitrogen that is quickly dissipated in the flow of Penobscot Bay, returns it to its original condition. This produces a meat source that is both pure and valuable.  Like wind power coming to the mid coast area here is a green industry that borrows our natural resources, returns them unharmed and produces a value product that also creates jobs and pays high taxes. What a welcomed industry.

The naysayers, of course, must come up with something negative, so silly and so impractical. Jennifer you should have been here in the 70's to see the pollution maybe you could find something positive in how clean we have made our harbor and bay. I still remember a quote from a Marine Ecology professor 50 years ago " Conservation is the wise use of our natural resources, not the non use" We have to eat, heat our homes and raise our children and we are not allowed the luxury to pretend someone else will do it for us is some magical way without using our natural resources, just use them wisely.

Posted by: Seth Thayer | Jul 31, 2019 23:11

I don't really know to what Ms. Hill is referring, but I like what I read in the article.  I talked with a friend who has experience working with fisheries through a job with the state.  As a local, he is excited by the prospect of being able to apply for a good job in his chosen career field so close to home.  There seems to be potential for a some good relationships with local farmers and other small businesses.  Thank you Nordic, for choosing Belfast

Posted by: Jennifer Hill | Jul 31, 2019 20:09

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.

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