Heaps of charred potatoes can be seen in the rubble of the Penobscot McCrum processing plant in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

It’s been one year since a fire destroyed the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in Belfast, ending the era of waterfront factories that the city was once known for. The site has since been cleared of buildings and debris, but its future is unknown.

The McCrum family has been mum. CEO Jay McCrum couldn’t be reached for comment. But some city officials suspect that the factory won’t return.

“What we wish is that Penobscot McCrum was still here doing what they do and … employing a lot of people, creating a great Maine product in Belfast. The fire kind of put an end to that as far as we know,” said Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley.

Fire crews pour water on the burning building at the Penobscot McCrum facility in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant was spread across two parcels — 28 Pierce St. and 22 Front St. in Belfast. A fire that began around 2 a.m. March 24, 2022, destroyed the factory and took more than seven hours for firefighters to knock down. Even after the flames subsided, the plant continued to smolder into the afternoon.

The buildings were demolished, leaving 4.15 acre lot vacant for much of the last year.

It’s unlikely another factory will be built.

“You certainly couldn’t plop down another factory there like that on the water in 2023 with all the rules and regulations,” said Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders. “I can’t imagine it not becoming some sort of high rise [or] marina down the line.”

Anything erected on the site will be subject to Belfast’s Contract Rezoning in the Waterfront Mixed Use zoning district. That process requires applications to and public hearings for the Belfast Comprehensive Plan Committee, the In-Town Design Review Committee, the Belfast Harbor Committee and the Planning Board before going before the City Council for approval, said Bub Fournier, the director of the city’s code and planning office. Although it sounds restrictive, he said the process was created to allow for more flexibility with waterfront parcels.

“It has applicants hitting all the review boards in orderly fashion,” Fournier said. Then each of the committee makes a recommendation, and the City Council makes the final decision.

The city’s unique zoning has made other developments on the waterfront possible, including the shipyard project. Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge said that zoning of the parcel means it could be commercial, residential or mixed use. His office hasn’t received any inquiries on it and aren’t involved in the future planning.

While city officials say they are happy to wait for the owners to decide the property’s future, they also want to see something happen there.

“This is one we’re hoping that we get an application for,” Fournier said. “It’s definitely prime real estate and a beautiful spot, and I can’t wait to see what somebody comes up with, whether it’s Penobscot McCrum rebuilding or something new.”

City Manager Erin Herbig said that the city appreciates what McCrum business did for the city and they are happy to wait for a decision to be made.

“The McCrum family is making decisions for the future of their business,” said Herbig.

For the Belfast community, the McCrum factory is a place where everyone knows someone — a relative, a friend, a neighbor — who’s been employed there, Herbig said.

“Whatever the McCrums plan to do, whether it’s to rebuild or whether it’s to develop their properties in another way, Belfast is a great place to do business in,” Hurley said. “And obviously these properties are extremely valuable and critical to the future of Belfast.”

An oil sheen shows on the surface of the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast Thursday morning, as firefighters work to contain the fire at Penobscot McCrum. Credit: Jim Clark / BDN

For the city, March 24 is about remembering the massive fire — and being grateful for what didn’t happen.

“There were a lot of unknowns that day. You can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Herbig said. Instead, officials had to act in the moment.

Sanders said he’s hearing more from people remembering the fire a year ago. That morning, he was walking his dog at about 5:30 a.m. when he saw a glow and heard crackling.

“You could hear the fire from a mile away,” Sanders said, recalling how he rushed down toward the factory with his dog.

At the time, Belfast had a newly minted fire chief. There were also many unknowns with the facility, which had prone ammonia tanks and was previously used for processing chickens.

“My thoughts as a mayor and a person who lives here: It’s still emotional. We had my fire chief go first into a building that was probably 100 years old encrusted with chicken grease,” Sanders said.

The assistant chief was high in the air, spraying toward the tanks that officials worried would explode.  

Miraculously — Sanders calls it a miracle — despite the intensity of the fire and the unknowns, no one was injured or died in the blaze.  

After the fire, the city first worked with Penobscot McCrum to get Hannaford gift cards to all the employees, Herbig said. On two other occasions, they also gave employees $500 checks as well. A career fair held later resulted in more than half of the employees being placed in new jobs.

“It was pretty incredible,” Herbig said. “People don’t want to lose their jobs without any heads up. … We just wanted to be there to help them.”

The city waived fees for the clearing permit, Herbig said.

“They’ve been a big part of our community so being there for them was extremely important,” Herbig said.

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...