A sign is placed in front of an empty lot.
The site of the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in Belfast has been cleared. The factory was destroyed by fire on March 24. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Two months after a devastating fire ripped through the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant on the Belfast waterfront, the site has been cleared and the downtown entrance to the Belfast Rail Trail has been reopened to the public.  

The rubble, the scorched steel factory remnants and the company’s wastewater treatment plant, a structure that was largely unscathed by the fire, all have been removed. In their place is an empty 4.15 acre lot that has been hydroseeded in order to establish erosion control.

The only things left on the lot over the weekend were a small metal tank, a pile of mulch, an excavator and the blackened remains of a small retaining wall on the hillside on the inland side of the property.

“We’re glad to see progress has been made on the cleanup, especially because safety was an issue,” Belfast City Councilor Neal Harkness said this week. “We’re very happy to have the Rail Trail completely open again. We’re looking forward to seeing what are the next stages.”

So far, what’s next for the property is not publicly known, and efforts this week to speak with representatives of Penobscot McCrum were not immediately successful. The family-owned company’s headquarters are located in Belfast, where 138 people were employed at the processing factory that was destroyed in the March 24 fire. But the company’s field operations and a new fry plant processing facility are located in Aroostook County, and even before the fire, the Washburn plant had been scheduled to increase production.

No one was injured in the fire, which started in the early morning hours when few people were working at the factory. The fire has been ruled accidental in origin, but because of the extent of the damage, the office of the Maine State Fire Marshal has been unable to pinpoint the cause. It may have started on a conveyor belt that ran alongside a large fryolator, Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said a week or so after the fire.

Crews from at least 10 communities converged on Belfast to put the fire out and keep it from spreading. They also successfully kept the flames from reaching the 9,000 gallons of liquified propane and 12,000 pounds of ammonia the company used as a refrigerant, both of which were stored on the site.

The Belfast property is valued by the city at $1.24 million — though more than $900,000 of that is for the valuation of the buildings on the site, all of which are gone now. It’s not immediately clear how the fire and the destruction of the buildings on the lot could affect the city’s coffers in the upcoming fiscal year.

The parcel is located in the waterfront mixed-use zoning district, which provides the owner of the land a lot of latitude, according to city officials.

“Now that it’s been cleared, you can really see that the site has a lot of potential,” Bub Fournier, the director of the city’s code and planning office, said. “I have no idea what’s next, honestly. That zoning district allows almost anything, so you can imagine that almost anything could be proposed.”  

Penobscot McCrum took out permits only for demolition on the site and not for construction there, he said, but it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t in the future.

On the day of the fire, Gov. Janet Mills came to Belfast to meet with McCrum family members and city officials. She said she wanted to help the company rebuild as soon as possible. A few days after that, company representatives met with city officials to discuss cleanup and rebuilding.

“We’re just trying to make smart business decisions and not make any emotional decisions,” Dayna McCrum, the operations supervisor for the company, said then.

At that time, the McCrums had not made any decisions about whether they would rebuild in the same location.  

“Nobody wants to close any doors,” Fournier said. “You just keep all the options open. I think that’s why they wanted to get it cleaned up so quickly.”

He said that the city will officially close out the demolition permit when Penobscot McCrum has met all of the conditions, which include being in compliance with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The Maine DEP and other agencies worked with the company to make sure that the cleanup was done properly and that nothing detrimental went into Penobscot Bay.

“There were hazardous materials on site that needed to be dealt with properly, and then there was food waste,” Fournier said. “There was definitely a whole pile of seagulls down there. And a fair amount of onlookers, human-form onlookers.”

The McCrum family and their contractors did a good job setting up a perimeter around the site and following all the requirements set by the Maine DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said. A contractor sorted through the material left on the site after the fire, recycling metal and sending what couldn’t be saved to the landfill, Fournier said.

The site is subject to contract, or spot, rezoning, he said. That means that if and when a proposal is brought forth about the property, the Belfast City Council will make the decisions and not the Belfast Planning Board. Something that won’t change in the future is the fact that the Belfast Rail Trail runs through the property, Fournier said, even though that was a bone of contention between city officials and the McCrum family back in 2016.

Back then, the city wanted a conservation easement across the land to connect the Rail Trail to downtown Belfast, but the McCrums did not agree. A move by the city to seize an easement across the property by eminent domain was negated at the 11th hour when owner Jay McCrum offered to build a trail and lease it to the city.

“At this point, the Rail Trail is somewhat water under the bridge,” Fournier said. “The Rail Trail is there.”