In Island Pond: Quebec maple firm seeks syrup factory
by Paul Lefebvre
ISLAND POND — A Quebec maple company may be setting up shop in an empty factory here that failed to gain traction as a woodworking facility and create jobs after the Ethan Allen plant shut down in 2000.
The empty factory, known as the REM building on Meadow Street and owned by the town, could have a tenant as early as the middle of the month, according to Brighton Administrative Assistant Joel Cope.
A representative from Bernards Maple of Saint-Victor, Quebec, talked to Brighton’s selectmen late last month, and on Tuesday confirmed that the company is interested in leasing the building and more.
“It’s not a building we’re looking at, it’s an industry,” said Jacques Letourneau, who is negotiating with the town on behalf of the company.
Mr. Letourneau, who spoke guardedly during a brief telephone interview, said negotiations over leasing the building with an option to buy are still at a very preliminary stage, and he preferred “not to divulge anything until everything is in place.”
According to the minutes of the August 27 selectman’s meeting, the company would like to move in by September 16 and have environmental permits in place by the end of October.
“We’re happy to help them with that and move through the process,” said Mr. Cope, speaking in an interview last Thursday.
Still uncertain is what the deal would mean in terms of jobs. Best estimates suggest that only a few jobs would be created at the outset, with as many as 30 to 40 to “maintain the operation” and three or four permanent jobs at the plant. Yet the potential has the power to excite town officials.
“We think it’s a very exciting opportunity and is exactly what this community needs,” said Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, chairman of the Brighton selectmen.
She said the company is considering a two-phase development over four to five years, “and that’s where the jobs will come from.”
The deal offered by the town last week would be to lease the factory for $15,000 — $1 per square foot — with the annual lease payment going toward a $250,000 purchase price.
Tentatively, the company plans to make maple syrup in the building with sap trucked in from maple bushes in the area that it seeks to lease. To that end, it has already begun talks with Plum Creek, the large timber company that owns more than 86,000 acres in northern Essex County.
Mr. Cope said the company would like to collect sap from roughly 100,000 taps, and expand up to one million.
“If they can find the land and the trees,” he added.
Mr. Letourneau said the company knows the trees are there, having done its research before approaching the town. Realtor Mick Conley of Derby, who is serving as the company’s agent in Vermont, said Essex County has the third highest number of maple trees in the state.
Mark Doty, a public affairs agent with Plum Creek, would only confirm Tuesday that the Canadian company has expressed an interest. “It’s still very, very preliminary,” he said. “Nothing to report.”
The town put the REM building on the market about a year ago, according to Mr. Cope. It derives its name from the previous owner, Robert E. Miller of South Burlington, who gave the building to the town after its previous tenants — the Island Pond Woodworkers, an employee-owned woodworking factory — failed to make a go of it. Mr. Cope estimated the town has owned the building since 2010.
Located in Saint-Victor, about an hour south of Quebec City and 125 miles north of Island Pond, Bernards Maple is a fifth-generation-owned company that “has been making maple syrup for over 200 years,” said Mr. Letourneau.
As a company it is involved in every aspect of the maple industry, from tapping the trees to distributing the final product.
“We’re about as close to the consumer as you can get without putting it in the refrigerator,” he said.
The company plans to start off slow and expand. It wants assurances from the town that it will be able to put on a 5,000-square-foot addition to the building without running into any regulatory delays.
Located in a light industrial zone, the building already has an Act 250 permit. On Tuesday Steve Paterson, who heads the regional planning agency, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), said his group is looking at what additional permits may be required.
According to the minutes of the selectmen’s meeting last month, the company could be running as many as ten big trucks a day into Meadow Street at certain times of the year. The REM building appears to be well situated to overcome any permitting obstacles.
“None seem to be insurmountable to me,” said Mr. Cope.
If the company comes to town, one change that will occur quickly is that the building will change its name to the Island Pond Maple Factory.
Mr. Letourneau said Tuesday that, as an old family company in Quebec, Bernards Maple wants the community to be involved. He told selectmen that the company wants to make sure that the residents of Meadow Street are not disturbed by the heightened traffic on their street. And on Tuesday, he spoke of the need for community support for the project.
Presumably, that support will grow as jobs become available. But as Ms. Gervais-Lamoureux noted, the potential for jobs will increase only if the factory is occupied.
contact Paul Lefebvre at [email protected]