November 16, 2012

Biddeford workers saw Hostess closure coming

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD -- While Hostess workers in Maine worry about their livelihoods, residents of this city said were expecting Friday's news that the company will go out of business.

The city has lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs over the last two decades, and Hostess Brands Inc. struggled for years, filing for bankruptcy twice in a decade. The company employed 500 workers in Maine, including 370 in Biddeford.

Stan Hallett, 61, who lives in nearby Lyman and works as a handyman in the Biddeford area, said it's unfortunate the plant is closing, but Biddeford has seen many closures over the years. WestPoint Home, Biddeford's last textile mill, closed in 2009 and 120 poeple lost thier jobs.

Roger Cote, 75, a lifelong Biddeford resident who has been retired for years, said he feels for the employees who will lose their jobs, especially so close to the holidays. "But people just aren't buying Twinkies anymore."

Biddeford officials will work with the state's rapid response team to meet with workers, answer their questions about unemployment and other benefits, and explore job retraining possibilities.

The city has contacted Maine's economic development commissioner, George Gervais, and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to help coordinate resources for workers and plan for the future of the plant.

"This is a terrible time for people to be losing jobs," said Delilah Poupore, director of Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit that supports downtown businesses. "Anytime you have a loss of jobs, it affects the whole economic picture, so we're all going to feel this."

Hostess was the fourth-largest employer in Biddeford after Southern Maine Medical Center, the city itself and the University of New England, said City Manager John Bubier.

Although Hostess has already stopped production and started closing the plant, Bubier said the company will pay property taxes as long as it owns the building. The annual bill is about $580,000. The bakery was a J.J. Nissen bakery before Hostess bought the Portland company in 1998, and kept the Nissen brand.

Many of Biddeford's closed mills have been converted into small-business complexes, condominiums or a combination of both.

Bubier said as many as 90 small businesses, with about 500 employees, have moved into Biddeford since the mills closed. But rebuilding a town takes time, he said.

"Going forward, we will assemble private and traditional investors to brainstorm about what to do with the plant," he said. "We're very optimistic about Biddeford's economic improvement. There's significant interest by businesses to come in and talk about opportunities in Biddeford."

Poupore, with Heart of Biddeford, said three small business have opened on Main Street recently. It's not 300 employees, she said, but it's a start.

Shawn Campbell, 41, who worked at the Hostess plant for 13 years, said the last eight years have been rocky but he and others waited for business to get better.

He still has a glimmer of hope that a new owner will come in and turn the operation around, but he recognizes that he and many others will likely have to look for work elsewhere.

"We'll get out there and make calls," he said. "We're all hard workers here."

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