Shucks seeks OK for lobster processing, restaurant and education center

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A Maine lobster business plans to build a processing plant, seafood restaurant and marine education center on the Portland waterfront, the newest iteration of the company’s long-planned expansion.

John Hathaway, owner of Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster, asked the Portland Fish Pier Authority board of directors for a 30-year lease on the small, vacant, city-owned loton Monday. At least one other seafood business has expressed interest in the property on the Portland Fish Pier fronting Commercial Street. 

Hathaway plans to put up a two-story, 16,000-square-foot building that will be a combination lobster processing plant, raw bar, marine heritage display and test kitchen called the Maine Sustainable Seafood Center. The combined business would create up to 80 new jobs, Hathaway estimated.

His vision is a “trap to table” experience that gives customers a chance to learn more about how seafood gets from the ocean to their plates and meet the people who put it there. 

The center is “at its core, a seafood processing and industry business designed to service Maine’s seafood economy and help the fishing community to connect with the visitors who come to Maine to eat seafood, but have no point of access to learn about the men and women who provide the catch,” Hathaway said in a written proposal to the board.

The business also will have space for chefs to try out new recipes, teach classes and hold events like the company’s lobster world series, and an education center to demonstrate the history and legacy of Portland’s working waterfront.

Tourists and customers want to know more about how their food is produced, and his business would offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to give them that experience, Hathaway said.

“They want to know, ‘where’s that lobster coming from?’” he told the board. “There is nothing like it in the state.”

The idea for the center was first pitched to the board late last year, and then in February, Hathaway, in collaboration with John Jordan of Calendar Islands, a Portland seafood company, and chef and author Barton Seaver, asked for a lease for the lot and planned to build a lobster processing plant almost twice the size of the current proposal. 

Board members voted in February not to entertain any other offers on the lot until November. 

Hathaway’s new proposal is slimmed down from what he proposed six months ago. Shucks is the only partner still involved in the venture, he told the board.

The Fish Pier Authority is a city agency tasked with managing and marketing the pier that houses the Portland Fish Exchange, Bristol Seafood and the Marine Trade Center. 

The quarter-acre lot Hathaway wants has been vacant for about 30 years, but until recently there hasn’t been much interest in the property or a city effort to market it, said Portland Fish Exchange General Manager Bert Jongerden. 

“It’s been kind of languishing,” he said. 

But with more energy and development on Portland’s waterfront, the open lot is attracting attention. 

Although the board agreed not to entertain any other offers for at least two more months, Bristol Seafood has notified the city of its interest in the property. 

“We are in growth mode and looking at expansion at the pier,” Jennifer Cyr, vice president of finance for the company, told the board. 

Bristol is launching a $5 million expansion and, as a fish pier tenant, wants the city to know it is interested in expanding its footprint, Cyr said in an interview after the meeting. 

Bristol notified the board of its interest in the property in a letter the city has kept confidential because it involves proprietary information. 

Board members held a 45-minute executive session Monday to discuss Hathaway’s lease request, but did not consider offers from any other interested parties, authority President Nick Mavodones said. 

The board needs to consult with a city attorney before deciding how to proceed with Hathaway’s request, Mavodones said. Terms of a potential lease are still being negotiated and are confidential, Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said in an email Monday.

The cost of the proposed center has not been made public. In December, Shucks received a $400,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, with a $1.15 million match, for its expansion in Gorham.

In a memo to the board, Hathaway asked them to make a decision by its October meeting, because he wants to start the planning review process.

“We’ve invested a lot of time and money, we want to know what the steps are to get from here to there,” he told board members,

Shucks employs at least 80 at its 25,000-square-foot plant in Richmond. It is the only lobster company in the country to use a high-pressure water system to humanely kill lobsters and remove raw meat from shells. 

In 2013, Hathaway signed a lease deal with Portland for 19,000 square feet in the Portland Ocean Terminal on Maine State Pier, for a Shuck’s expansion.

That agreement was terminated in 2015 because Hathaway did not move forward with the project, Mitchell said. 

Last year, Hathaway got approval from Gorham to build a 28,000-square-foot processing plant. But he put that project on hold to explore the possibility that he could make his “trap to table” idea come alive in Portland, he said.

“The opportunity was much more exciting, much more the vision I have,” he told board members.

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