The 2-acre business that produces road salt on Coldbrook Road in Hermon has come a long way since Ryan McPike bought it from his father a decade ago.
Maine Salt Company used to have just two buildings and so little pavement that McPike could barely maneuver his truck around the property, which is just 1.5 miles from Interstate 95.
Since then, he has added an estimated $1 million in investments to the facility, including additional pavement, a large canvas storage dome and its newest piece of machinery that just started operating last month: an enclosed 20-foot trommel that dries out salt by rotating it and blasting it with heat.
On a recent weekday morning, a 16-wheel truck had no problem driving up from Searsport and delivering a load of Egyptian rock salt that was promptly sent through the dryer, emitting a thick billow of vapor. Inside one of the buildings, workers were filling branded packages with a popular blend of sodium chloride that would eventually be shipped to Bath Iron Works.
After more than quadrupling the company’s sales over the past decade and doubling its staff to eight, McPike said that he is now looking to grow his customer base outside of Maine. “We’ve taken all that money and put it back into the business,” McPike, 41, said. “I’m in this for the long haul.”
Maine Salt Company’s growth would be a triumph for almost any town in Maine. But in Hermon, it’s looking more like the rule than the exception these days.
The town’s industrial vacancies fell from about 7 percent in 2012 to 2 percent last year, according to data from Epstein Commercial Real Estate, and the town now reports that they’re below 1 percent. That growth has come from both new businesses locating in Hermon and existing ones expanding, according to Economic Development Director Scott Perkins.
One of the bigger recent developments came a year ago, when Belfast-based window manufacturer Mathews Brothers announced that it was purchasing a 132,000-square-foot warehouse that it is now converting into a manufacturing and logistics facility. It has already hired about 15 people to staff that facility and plans to eventually create around 90 jobs there, according to president and CEO John Magri.
At the same time, Hermon’s population has seen some of the steadiest growth in the Bangor region over the past few decades. While a number of other communities have also seen gains, their growth has either slowed or reversed in the past decade.
However, Hermon’s has remained almost unchanged, with its population climbing more than 10 percent between 2010 and 2018, from 5,416 to 5,981, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. The next closest gains came in Winterport, Levant and Orono, which saw their estimated populations grow by 6 percent or less during the same time.
As new housing subdivisions have gone in, the Hermon School Department has seen a corresponding jump in the number of local students, from 905 in 2007 to 1,015 last year, according to department data. To help accommodate that growth, the district recently completed an expansion of Hermon Elementary School that added 10 classrooms.
So at a time when many communities outside southern Maine are shrinking, what explains Hermon’s mojo?
Michael Aube, the longtime director of Eastern Maine Development Corporation who retired last year and now works as a consultant, said that some growth should be expected in many communities across the Bangor-Brewer area.
The big thing that has drawn businesses and some residents to Hermon over the past few decades has probably been its proximity to I-95 and a rail system, according to Aube. He first noticed an uptick in the town’s development in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the expansion of local businesses that support the trucking industry, including dealerships and the Dysart’s truck stop just off I-95 on Coldbrook Road.
But Aube pointed to several other factors that have also played a role in Hermon’s development, including its bucolic character that probably appeals to people looking for a new home in the suburbs and forward-looking leaders who have welcomed businesses, while keeping taxes relatively low.
“Once those [trucking businesses] came in, the support services and supply chains started moving in,” Aube said. “That brings people in who say, ‘I want to live near there and be part of that community.’”
Perkins also pointed to the town’s proximity to Bangor as a reason that Hermon has been able to grow at a reasonable clip that has allowed the town to address residents’ needs and maintain some key local services — such as a well-regarded school district and recreation program — while keeping taxes relatively low.
For at least seven years, Hermon has been able to cap its property tax rate at around $12 per $1,000 of valuation, according to the latest annual report. That’s more than half of Bangor’s current tax rate: $23 per $1,000 of valuation.
Perkins said the town’s growth can help the whole region by providing a desirable place for young families to live, and he pointed to several important steps the town has taken to support the kind of commercial development that has helped fund its local services, beginning with the creation of two industrial parks along Hammond Street a few decades ago.
In time, the town’s leaders also worked to develop the shopping area on Coldbrook Road that includes Danforth’s Down Home Supermarket, Perkins said. And in 2015, Hermon worked with Eastern Maine Development Corporation to identify its assets and determine how to leverage them for future economic development.
That effort led to the creation of an economic development committee and Perkins’ office. In his role, he works with new and old businesses to determine what kind of infrastructure the town can develop to help them set up shop or grow.
Now, for example, the town is working to bring a sewer line and other resources to the warehouse off Coldbrook Road that Mathews Brothers is converting into its new production and storage facility. In the future, that infrastructure could help other businesses, too, according to Perkins.
“That strategy that the committee created is working,” he said.