AUBURN — In the hustle to remodel Prospect Hill Golf Course in time for next month’s opening, new owner Fang Cheng Morrow has found herself dispensing near-daily assurances:
Prospect Hill is not being turned into a mushroom factory.
Not that the rumor is so far-fetched.
Morrow, president of Mingjing Industry Group Co., said she and business partner Nianping Wang are also scouting locally for land to build a 15-acre indoor mushroom-growing factory that could create 150 jobs in the next two years.
Morrow, originally from China, makes a point of saying her group doesn’t know and isn’t at all involved with Chinese investors looking to create a medical tourism hub out of a former shoe factory in Auburn.
“We don’t want to start something and give people hope,” she said Wednesday by the sunny golf course. “Say less, do more.”
Michael Chammings, the city’s economic and community development director, said he’s excited at the prospect of the factory project for the taxes, the jobs, the draw and the minimal environmental impact.
“It’s not intended to be a tourist attraction, but I think it probably will be for a while,”Chammings said. “Overall, you couldn’t ask for more for a business coming in.”
Morrow, 45, who has homes in Florida and China and is now looking to build locally, said both projects’ roots loop back to Hebron Academy. She has an investment and education consulting company in Beijing and through that, three years ago, found Hebron was a good match for Wang’s daughter.
His daughter enjoyed the school and it left him with a good impression of the area. At his request, Morrow pulled together a delegation of Chinese company heads that met with Gov. Paul LePage last May to hear about why investing in Maine made sense.
LePage spokesman Peter Steele, who confirmed the meeting, said Wednesday that the governor has routinely met with international investors to pitch the state since 2011.
Maine has ideal weather for a mushroom operation, Morrow said. As they looked for land, the golf course crossed their radar as a good investment. That sale closed in December, purchasing it from Don Sheldon, who had bought the 18-hole course from a bank in 2008.
Morrow said they’re viewing it as a long-term investment. She’s ordered 40 new Club Car golf carts, repainted the clubhouse and is building a patio. Cart paths are being upgraded and the course is getting a visual makeover with wildflowers and apple and cherry trees.
The clubhouse kitchen is also being upgraded, reborn as the year-round Prospect Hill Restaurant with American, Italian and Chinese cuisine.
Green superintendent Brian Foss has stayed on. The greens are also where the golf course links into the mushroom factory: Mushroom bedding makes great, all-natural fertilizer, Morrow said.
She would like to see construction on that project begin later this year. It would take a year to build out. With a harvest every 19 days of varieties including portobello and button, it would ship an estimated 10 to 15 tractor-trailer loads of mushrooms each week.
Forty percent of mushrooms eaten in America are imported from China, South Korea and Japan, according to Morrow. It makes sense to grow them here.
But she’s not focused on that just yet.
“At this point in time, we just want to make the golf course better,” said Morrow, who is shooting for a course opening the second week of May. “I haven’t talked about the mushroom factory too much because I want to focus: get this done, get this organized, then we will start plans.”
Chammings, who has talked to Morrow about zoning and utilities for the project, said he sees a distinct difference between a mushroom factory and plans announced two years ago for a $40 million proposed medical tourism project that’s currently in limbo.
“Right now, (Wang’s) coming in, he’s looking at the properties to see if it’s feasible. If it is, he will be doing it,” Chammings said. “He has the cash flow to do this. The difference you have is when he came here with money looking to invest in the United States and the Barn, they were looking for investors into the project. It’s just a different setup.”
Fang Cheng Morrow is the new owner of the Prospect Hill Golf Course in Auburn with business partner Nianping Wang.
Gov. Paul LePage with a visiting group of potential Chinese investors last May. Nianping Wang, third from left, and Fang Cheng Morrow, second from right, bought the Prospect Hill Golf Course this winter in Auburn. The two are now looking for property for an indoor mushroom factory.
New sign for Prospect Hill Golf Course
Fang Cheng Morrow poses with Maine Gov. Paul LePage during a visit last May. Morrow had led a delegation of Chinese investors interested in hearing about Maine and this winter bought the Prospect Hill Golf Course in Auburn with a Chinese business partner