The Working Waterfront

The strange tale of a would-be chicken king

Coastal Maine can be choosey about its business future

Tom Groening
Posted 2021-05-24
Last Modified 2021-05-24

The Island Institute, publisher of this newspaper, has done a lot of work with small island schools and one of its best efforts was helping form the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative, or TLC, which facilitates links between students from those small schools.

Recently, the Institute’s education team asked me to participate in a Zoom career day for TLC students, a few of whom seemed sincerely interested in careers in journalism. I had mixed feelings about encouraging them. Demand for information is as high as ever, but print publications have a hard time selling ads at rates high enough to sustain them.

I certainly was pleased to encourage these young people to learn about journalism. In fact, I think it should be a part of a civics curriculum. I’m often surprised at how little smart people know about the news business.

I began writing more sharply worded editorials urging, then demanding that he show his financial ability…

I also believe the skills one learns in journalism—researching, interviewing, listening, analyzing, and writing—can transfer to a host of careers.

One of the students asked me about the biggest story I had ever written. Several passed through my head, but I quickly settled on the strange tale of a man from Prince Edward Island, Canada, who arrived in Belfast claiming he would revive the poultry processing industry.

It was about 1990 and I was at the (Belfast) Republican Journal. The second of two poultry processing plants, established in the 1930s, had gone belly up a few years earlier, putting hundreds out of work. The man—in his late 20s or early 30s—began inquiring at city hall about permits, and a meeting of the planning board was scheduled.

About 150 people showed up and the meeting was moved to the high school cafeteria. When the board chairman introduced the would-be entrepreneur, most in the audience rose and began applauding. It was a moving moment.

But it soon became apparent the developer didn’t have the financial backing he would need. Those of us who covered the ongoing review meetings began noticing that he wore the same suit. And white socks. I’m no fashion star, but I know what dressing for success looks like.

And he had no one else with him, no lawyer or planners or managers. After a time, he hired a local woman as his secretary and a man to do such things as mow the lawn at one of the sites he was considering for his plant. Those sites changed each time he ran into regulatory hurdles.

The paperwork he filed was riddled with misspellings. People in the community told me they’d seen evidence that he was sleeping in his car.

As editor of the weekly newspaper, I began writing more sharply worded editorials urging, then demanding that he show his financial ability to start a plant. One day his helper, dressed in a chicken suit, taunted me by name from the sidewalk across from our Main Street office.

Finally, a woman in the community who had done some reporting work was planning to go to PEI with her husband on a business trip and offered to do some poking around about our mystery man. She found court filings for unpaid work by contractors and promises and filings for a plant there that never materialized.

The final nail came when a prominent Belfast businessman put together a deal to sell poultry to Russia and enlisted our PEI friend to line up the farmers with whom he claimed to have working relationships. The poultry never materialized and soon the Canadian Broadcasting Company was interviewing many of the players in this drama.

In his interview by the CBC, the local businessman called the PEI man “the charlatan of Charlottetown.”

At that first meeting at the high school, one of the planning board members—one of the smartest and most progressive thinkers among the city’s leaders—gave an impromptu speech about how Belfast’s sardine, potato, shoe, and poultry plants, while providing plenty of jobs, ultimately lowered educational and economic standards for the city. It went over badly, but he was right.

The guy who dressed in the chicken suit later told me he’d never seen a dime of pay for his hundreds of hours of work.

What I find interesting is that 30 years later, Belfast would have far less patience for such a pitch. A Norwegian entrepreneur is currently pursuing a land-based salmon farm, an operation that might mean a $500 million investment. There is a vocal minority opposing it, but among supporters, I don’t see the desperation that I saw in the eyes of those former poultry plant workers that night at the high school.

That’s one measure of success.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be contacted at