Rumford’s great economic hope turns uncertain

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RUMFORD – Plans for a $45 million biorefinery, here or anywhere else in Maine, have fallen through.

Still, some people believe the idea to turn wood products into fuel and other commercial substances will eventually become reality.

Scott Christiansen, ex-head of the Fractionation Development Center based in Rumford, resigned at the end of June. His assistant, Todd Polanowicz, resigned about the same time, heading for a job in the Boston area.

Christiansen, who had worked as director of the River Valley Growth Council before spinning off the fractionation center, said on Tuesday that lack of funding from the state for continued research and development was not the reason he resigned.

He said he had told the FDC board when it was created two years ago that he planned to stay for about a year, then turn over the directorship to an assistant. Instead, he stayed longer, but decided now was the time to go.

Prior to coming to the River Valley six years ago, he had worked for nonprofit agencies overseas, such as in Mongolia, and that’s the type of work he wants to return to.

He has enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Maine in environmental and ecological sciences. He also plans to look for and find a nonprofit or for-profit position in western China or northern India dealing in renewable energy.

He said he thought he had a viable project for a biorefinery that would turn the state’s wood supplies into fuel and other chemicals, but the further he dug into it, the more expensive he discovered it to be.

The model, he insists, needs about two more years work.

He said he gave notice in May to the FDC board, which is made up of local people as well as experts in alternate fuels, that he was leaving at the end of June.

Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, tried getting the state to fund $700,000 for the continuation of research and to advance the cause of fractionation.

Now, without the funds or the leadership, he said he still has hope that utilizing wood products in diverse ways will still come about.

“We will re-tool the board and work more locally with existing manufacturing to try to find and develop ways to diversify the economy,” he said. “We tried to develop a whole new sector for the state. But the University of Maine got a grant last year that encompassed what the FDC was trying to do,” he said.

Christiansen said the university has the research arm of the project, but the FDC was to be the commercial arm.

Bryant said the new board, which he expects to be created within the next couple of months, will have a new mission that will still aim toward the development of innovative products and chemicals from wood.

As for funding, he’s not sure where that will come from, but he has hopes that it will be found.

“Like most nonprofits, there are up years and down years. The board will run the operation until we find the money,” he said.

The board will consist of pulp mill managers and other people associated with the production of wood, he said.

“Everyone understands this is the future,” he said of finding alternate uses for wood products. “We will maintain an office at the River Valley Technology Center and continue to try to bring in new small businesses. We’re persistent. Over time it will work. In rural Maine, you have to keep plugging on.”

Christiansen said he would love to be leaving the FDC with a biorefinery up and running.

“But it’s been a pleasure and an honor working in the River Valley,” he said. “Technology is difficult and uncertain.”

Bryant said economic development is not a 100-yard dash.

“We’re creative and we’ll keep moving forward,” he said.

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