For consumers, inflation made this year a rough one.
Still, major economic developments took shape in remote areas of the state and some housing projects took big steps forward.
The largest investment announced by far this year was a staggering $4.4 billion plan to make cleaner jet fuel using biomass in Aroostook County. DG Fuels, a Washington, DC-based startup, will build its plant on 1,240 acres of land in Limestone on land owned by the Loring Development Authority.
The new business could bring an economic boost to a part of Aroostook County that desperately needs it. DG Fuels plans to create 650 permanent jobs and 2,300 during construction, which it plans to begin in 2024.
Loring officials hope the fuel project will lead to more sustainable economic development at the former air force base.
“Any project of this magnitude is bound to have economic spinoffs that we can only imagine at this point,” Loring Development Authority President and CEO Carl Flora said when DG Fuels the land lease in November.
The ambitious DG Fuels plan hinges on being able to produce a type of fuel that is still being tested and has never been produced at high volumes. The company still is looking for investors for the plant, and must build out critical infrastructure, including a rail system and pipelines from Limestone to Searsport, some 200 miles away. It is also trying to get a similar plant near New Orleans financed and running by next summer.
Another out-of-state entrepreneur is investing in Maine with 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.
Chicago businessman 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.
The project could have a significant impact on Somerset County, Christian Savage, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., said earlier about the planned project.
“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, Savage said, 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 of 866 in 2020 has long been losing population, down 6 percent from the previous decade.
This year also saw prices for homes and apartments hit record highs, a trend that exacerbated the shortage of affordable housing to the point of affecting the ability of businesses to hire workers. An effort made public recently could help relieve the rental shortage. Portland developers said they plan to add 804 mixed-use rental units, including multi-family ones.
Port Property Management and West Bayside Partners LLC, which have submitted basic plans to the city, are proposing to develop the housing on properties in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood that they acquired in October.
Craig Young, president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, said the proposal is the first to emerge since Portland voters approved new affordability and green construction requirements two years ago. It would retain existing commercial space and convert surface-level parking lots into multi-family housing. Garages would be used for parking.
If the plan is approved, it could make a dent in Maine’s 20,000-unit shortage of affordable rentals, more than 2,000 of them in greater Portland.
Another potential plan in its initial stages is to convert the Olde Federal Building, a downtown Augusta architectural icon, into 30 luxury apartments, according to the Kennebec Journal. The Goldman Group, a real estate business based in Boston, is reportedly in the process of buying the building and has submitted a conditional-use application to the planning board for the landmark building, which also will include retail space.
The state also saw substantial federal aid this year for key projects that could boost the economy. Maine is set to receive about $1 billion under the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
That includes much-needed broadband. Maine is getting $100 million for high-speed internet across the state. So far, about 59,000 households in Maine out of 221,000 eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program are enrolled. That cuts internet bills by up to $30 per month or $75 on tribal lands, and has a one-time $100 discount off of a connected device.