A 110-foot-long dryer to make veneer for plywood is being assembled at Maine Plywood USA in Bingham. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Plywood USA

An entrepreneur from Chicago has ambitious plans to turn a former sawmill in Bingham into a plywood factory that eventually could employ 100 people but still needs to find enough funding to get the equipment up and running.

Charlie Martin, who has several decades of experience in the forestry industries in the U.S. and Canada, plans to get the factory, called Maine Plywood USA, operational by next spring. The goal is to use Maine’s abundant supply of poplar and red maple trees to provide the country with plywood to lay under flooring.

China produces close to 60 percent of the plywood in the world. Maine Plywood would be the only company in New England making the plywood underlayment, according to the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, an industry group. The factory could use upwards of 100,000 tons of poplar per year.

Martin himself had been importing foreign plywood and selling it before he saw an opportunity in Maine’s supply of poplar, which is used in paper pulp. He reached out to economic development agencies throughout the state, and the Somerset Economic Development Corp. thought his idea might work in Bingham.

“He was already selling the plywood, and that perked up my ears,” Christian Savage, executive director of the development agency, said. “He was looking to replace foreign imports with Maine-made products and to create a new market for poplar.”

Savage said the potential for 100 direct jobs at the mill is important, because it could support another 500 indirect jobs for Somerset County, which generally has an unemployment rate about 2 percentage points higher than the state’s average. The town, which had 866 people in 2020, also has lost population, down 6 percent from 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 in the factory, but that, too, closed about 12 years ago, leaving the buildings to fall into disrepair.

Martin already has hired a general manager, project manager and two other employees to get the factory repaired and equipment assembled and set up. He will need 15 more people to start operations to first make veneer, thinner boards that are glued together to make plywood. About three weeks later, when there is a stock of veneer, he will need 15 more people to make the plywood. He expects to draw some employees from paper mills that have closed or are marked for closure, like the Jay paper mill in 2023.

When the factory has those two shifts, it could be the largest employer in town.

“We’ll be the only company in New England making this plywood product,” he said.

Martin now owns the factory building after paying back taxes on it. He has invested $1 million of his own money to repair the building, put in a new electrical system and move and assemble the used equipment he purchased from a defunct mill in Quebec.

He managed to get some good breaks in the process. He was able to buy a machine that another company couldn’t use but had paid $1.5 million for and sold to him for $500,000. It will cost another $150,000 to assemble it, but that still is less than half the original price.

With a new boiler, electrical system, roof and equipment assembly, Martin said he’ll need about $5 million total to get the mill started. He has invested 20 percent of that himself. Somerset County has granted the company $50,000. The Future Forest Economy initiative made a $369,000 grant to the Somerset Economic Development Corp. to buy dryer equipment that it will in turn lease to Maine Plywood.

To meet his goals, Martin is still searching for money from other state programs, private investors and bankers.

“Charlie has his work cut out for him,” said Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. “But hats off to him for taking the initiative and having the courage to come to a state that he’s not from and trying to make a go of it. We’d like to see more people do that.”