A Chicago entrepreneur has ambitious plans to turn a former sawmill in Bingham into a plywood factory that could eventually employ 100 people, but he still needs to find enough funding to get the equipment up and running.
Charlie Martin, who has decades of experience in the forestry industry in the United States and Canada, plans to have the Maine Plywood USA plant up and running by next spring. The goal is to take advantage of Maine’s abundant supply of spruce and red maple trees to supply the country with plywood for sub-flooring.
China produces nearly 60% of plywood in the world. According to Maine Professional Logging Contractors Industry Group, Maine Plywood will be the only company in New England to manufacture plywood underlayment. This factory can use more than 100,000 tons of spruce per year.
Martin himself imported and sold foreign plywood before he saw an opportunity in the supply of Maine spruce, which is used in pulp. He contacted economic development agencies around the state, and the Somerset Economic Development Corporation thought his idea might work in Bingham.
“He used to sell plywood and it caught my ear,” said Christine Savage, executive director of the development agency. He sought to replace foreign imports with mined products and create a new market for poplar.
Savage said the potential for 100 direct jobs at the plant is important because it could support another 500 indirect jobs for Somerset County, which generally has an unemployment rate about 2 percent above the state average. The city, which had 866 people in 2020, has also seen its population decline, a 6 percent decrease over 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 business tried to set up at the factory, but that too closed about 12 years ago and the buildings were destroyed.
Martin has already hired a general manager, project manager and two other employees to repair the plant and assemble and commission the equipment. He needs 15 more people to start the operation, first to make veneers and thinner boards that are glued together to make plywood. About three weeks later, when the cladding is in place, it will take another 15 people to make the plywood. He expects to draw some employees from paper mills that have closed or are slated for closure, such as the Jay paper mill in 2023.
When the factory has two shifts, it can be the biggest employer in the city.
“We will be the only company in New England that makes this plywood product,” he said.
Martin now owns the factory building after paying taxes on it. He has invested $1 million of his own money in renovating the building, installing a new electrical system, and moving and assembling used equipment he bought from a defunct factory in Quebec.
He managed to get a few good breaks in the process. He was able to buy a car that no other company could use but he had paid $1.5 million for and sold it to him for $500,000. It will cost another $150,000 to assemble, but that’s still less than half the original price.
With a boiler, electrical system, roof and assembly of new equipment, it will take about $5 million to get the plant up and running, Martin said. He invested 20% of it himself. Somerset County has awarded the company $50,000. The Future Forest Economy Initiative awarded a $369,000 grant to the Somerset Economic Development Corporation to purchase drying equipment that it will in turn lease to Maine Plywood.
Martin is still looking for money from other government programs, private investors and bankers to achieve his goals.
“Charlie has his work cut out for him,” said Dana Doran, CEO of Professional Forestry Contractors of Maine. But hats off to him who takes the initiative and has the courage to reach a situation he doesn’t belong to and tries to take advantage of it. “We would like more people to do this.”