CARIBOU - Representatives from across the forest products industry in northern Maine gathered in Caribou at the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC) for a first ever Northern Forest Products Industry Cluster meeting Thursday, Jan. 15.
The cluster, organized by the Aroostook Partnership for Progress (APP) and supported by NMDC through grants from the Maine Technology Institute and USDA Rural Development, will explore opportunities and challenges in the industry in order to develop an action plan to maximize the growth potential for this key sector in Aroostook's economy.
"The forest products industry represents more than 6,750 jobs in Aroostook County and is the major economic engine of the region," said APP President Bob Dorsey. "By getting together large landowners, loggers, mill owners and operators, forestry consultants, educators, representatives of elected officials, financial institutions and others, we can accomplish more collectively than companies can individually."
This initial session looked at the industry in broad strokes. Participants cited electrical costs, rail car shortages, rail expenses, operator age limitations, and the lack of teacher awareness of forestry jobs as major challenges to growth. Other challenges included the higher cost of diesel fuel in Aroostook County and the off road diesel sales tax. Dana Doran, Executive Director of the Maine Loggers Association, said the tax is unfair to the logging industry citing farmers and commercial fishermen in Maine are exempt. In fact, attendees mentioned several regulatory issues, both on the state and federal level, they would like to see addressed.
Bryan Kirkey, President of Ecoshel in Ashland, said once some of the barriers are addressed, he envisions new opportunities for Aroostook County and northern Maine.
"I see the pre-fab manufactured housing market being an exceptional opportunity for the region," he said.
APP President Bob Dorsey addressed the Northern Forest Products Industry Cluster members.
"This may be a market where more research and development is needed," said Dorsey. He also noted that officials from the University of Maine School of Forestry were also in attendance and some excellent research and development is being conducted at the state's flagship university.
"The degree and level of engagement by those companies serving on the Northern Forest Products Industry Cluster affirmed many of our original observations and it provided a far better understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing the entire forest sector," said Alain Ouellette, Planning and Development Division Director at NMDC.
Dorsey said the purpose of this effort is straightforward and on an accelerated timeline, to establish goals and objectives, develop an action plan, derive a strategy to achieve goals and objectives and implement the action plan. It was also noted during the meeting that several new bills have been introduced already by this industry for consideration during the current legislative session and these may drive some of the short-term action priorities for this group as the window to impact those actions is now.
The second meeting, to be held in less than a month, seeks to refine opportunities and challenges and determine priorities on which to act. The third meeting focuses on the initial strategy and the fourth will provide feedback on the action plan and identify committees and funding sources to engage in the plan. "Work continues between the cluster meetings, a core group representing different facets of the industry will continue to converse and meet to review and prioritize information for the upcoming meetings," added Dorsey.