BELFAST, Maine — Five days after a devastating fire consumed Penobscot McCrum’s potato processing plant on the Belfast waterfront, the community is rallying to help the people who worked there.
Money raised through grassroots events, including an upcoming benefit spaghetti dinner, and a concerted fundraising effort organized through the city will be used to help the 138 workers, according to Mayor Eric Sanders.
The city’s “Keep the Faith Fund,” originally created in 2020 to help Belfast small businesses affected by the pandemic, has pivoted to help the McCrum workers instead. On Thursday, the day of the fire, city officials decided to use nearly $14,000 from the fund to give the employees a $100 Hannaford gift card in their paychecks. Since then, people have donated more than $28,000 to the fund to help the workers.
“I think we have the best citizenry in the state,” Sanders said Monday afternoon. “We have a crisis, and they have responded enormously. It’s needed, because there are so many moving parts.”
Some of those moving parts may begin to be addressed this week. The state Department of Labor Rapid Response Team is coming to the city on Tuesday and Wednesday to interview McCrum workers in order to help with resources such as unemployment, City Manager Erin Herbig said.
There will be a one-week delay between when workers receive their last paycheck from the company and when unemployment begins, she said, adding that local efforts will hopefully help bridge that gap.
Down the road, Herbig said, the city wants to bring a group of stakeholders together to talk about holding both a career fair and a resources fair, in order to connect workers with job possibilities, rent relief, fuel assistance, grocery assistance and more.
“We want to make sure that our response is aligned with what the workers’ needs are,” she said.
But beginning the morning of the fire, Belfast residents have been reaching out to support both the first responders and the McCrum workers.
“I think it’s been absolutely incredible and such a testament to our community,” Herbig said. “I think it only reinforces everything I’ve always known about my hometown. When times get tough, we band together to help each other. That’s been really great to see.”
That is what Liza Clark of Belfast wanted to do. On Thursday, as the fire was raging, she and her husband, Chris Bowles, talked about the unfolding disaster and how they could help.
“We should really do something for these people,” she remembers saying.
What they settled on was something classic: a benefit spaghetti dinner, something they would organize through the motorcycle club they belong to. Bowles is the president and Clark is the secretary of the Steel Guardians Maine Chapter 1, a club composed of first responders, health care workers and those connected with the military.
Once they got the go-ahead from the other members of the club, Clark put out a Facebook post with a few details about the benefit.
“Oh my God, from that moment forward, our phones exploded,” she said. “There has been a ton of community support. We have been the ones who came up with the idea, but it’s really the community that made it happen.”
The donations-only dinner will be held from 5-7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 15, at the Belfast Area High School cafeteria. Money raised at the event will be distributed to the affected workers with the help of the city of Belfast.
Individuals and businesses have contributed pasta, sauce and other items necessary for the benefit dinner. Help has come from all over, Clark said. A Massachusetts couple with Maine ties bought a “whole bunch of pasta” from Costco that they will bring to Maine, she said. Trident Medical International, a Hampden-based company, has also donated 300 pounds of spaghetti and Anglers Restaurant is donating sauce.
“We are hoping for an overwhelming turnout that is going to be able to give something back to these people who tragically lost their employment with no notice, no warning,” Clark said. “A lot of people are already struggling so much as it is, with the rising costs of everything. We want to at least take some of the stress off them, if only for a day or two. It’s letting them know that their community, state and region are behind them.”
Other fundraising efforts include one happening at Rollie’s Bar & Grill in Belfast. For the foreseeable future, proceeds from all orders of Farm Fries, a Penobscot McCrum product, that are made on Fridays will help the displaced workers.
“The McCrum family and employees have supported us and we wanted to show our support for them all during this time,” restaurant owner Ryan Otis said Monday.