Shuttered Maine Mill Grinds Back to Life

When the Saunders Brothers mill in Greenwood, Maine, shut down in May, 55 people lost their jobs. Now, a small group of investors is working to rebuild the Pine Tree State's struggling wood products industry, reopening the plant and slowly creating jobs.

"This particular mill was the 'gem' of all mills because it hadn't been defunct for a very long time -- three months -- so it was very feasible to get it started again," said Louise Jonaitis, one of the owners who purchased the building and all the machines inside for $450,000.

Jonaitis believes she got a bargain and is relying on the talents of local craftsman and longtime woodworkers to turn a profit. Thus far, 15 people have been hired. The mill will continue to make dowels, wooden rods, rolling pins and other small pieces.

"They have all the knowledge," said Jonaitis of her slowly growing workforce. "People who've worked in this industry for 10, 15, 20 years have the knowledge and it's not knowledge that can be recreated. So that, combined with my enthusiasm and sort of a new model of how to go forward, I think it's going to work."

Her optimism is shared by grateful employees who are thrilled to have work in this rural community.

Machine operator Scott Allen was among the first workers to be hired when the plant reopened in September.

"I came right down and put my name in. I was excited -- really thought it wasn't going to open back up when it closed," said Allen, who expressed frustration that America's manufacturing base is shrinking and jobs are being outsourced. "We make good products. Everybody seems to be going to China and other places."

Maine's economy is showing signs of recovery. Unemployment in the state stands at 7.4 percent, down from 8.1 a year earlier. Still, many residents say it can be tough to find a good job.

"It's a big deal because if you don't have one it's really hard," said Nancy Thew, a newly hired machine operator as she sorted mini-dowels. She too is frustrated, watching America's manufacturing jobs disappear. "That's what made Maine was the mills and the production of products and you know things going overseas is just putting us out of work, making it harder for us to live here."

Jonaitis is diversifying her investment in the industry with plans to open other wood mills and make furniture.

"I think people are falling back in love with wood. I think plastics and other inferior products and things that don't come from the earth are going to become obsolete," said Jonaitis. Her plan is to focus on growth in the coming years.

"As the sales increase we're going to hire new people and it will really, for the next two years be about creating a job and maintaining a job," said Jonaitis. "If we make a profit, great -- we'll invest it back into another job."

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