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January 8, 2019

Shutdown's impact outside of D.C.? Just ask owner of Downeast seafood smokehouse

Courtesy / Leslie Harlow
Courtesy / Leslie Harlow
Leslie Harlow was waiting for final approvals from the FDA for her smokehouse operation in Hancock, when the government shutdown hit and put the brakes on those plans.

The owner of Sullivan Harbor Farm, an artisanal seafood smoking operation in Hancock, was on track to reopen this month. But the federal government shutdown has prevented her from receiving final approvals from the Food and Drug Administration, leaving the business in limbo.

"The FDA needed to provide us with documents and our lab testing results beforehand," Sullivan Harbor Farm owner Leslie Harlow told Mainebiz in a Jan. 6 email. "The three weeks of shutdown are preventing us from moving forward. And after all the firm has been through, this in particular is paralyzing."

In a Dec. 28 Facebook post on the business's website, Harlow wrote that the operation had been in the midst of a final FDA licensing review.

"All our boxes checked and ready to go. Inspected. Done. Document review. Done. Brought to a screeching halt over a wall. Our employees cannot work. We cannot reopen. No cash flow," she wrote.

Reached by phone, Harlow explained she was one of the founders of the business when it was established in 1993. She stepped away from the business 12 years ago. The owner who stayed on ran into regulatory problems and was forced to cease operation in the fall of 2015. The difficulty was not because of food safety, but was due to improper documentation, she said.

"It took us about six months to get things figured out," she continued. "Finally, two-and-a-half years ago I formally took over ownership. I thought, mistakenly, that I'd be able to pick up where the business left off."

But, she said, the FDA told her that because of the severity of the previously improper documentation, she'd have to start over with certifications.

That included lengthy and thorough reviews of operations. Throughout the process, she said, she was able to keep the brand name going through the operation's retail outlet, which is on the same property.

"I've kept the name alive by keeping our retail shop open in summers on Route 1, and I've made sure that Sullivan Harbor Farm has an active presence in the seafood world in Maine despite it all," she said.

But today, she said, she's unable to obtain the final paperwork she needs to reopen the smokehouse selling artisan seafood on a well-traveled stretch of Route 1.

"Our paperwork is sitting on someone's desk. We need the final letter saying you're good to go. We have a very positive inspection," she said.

'It's a real hardship'

Courtesy / Sullivan Harbor Farm
Courtesy / Sullivan Harbor Farm
An undated photo depicts processing of smoked salmon at Sullivan Harbor Farm in Hancock.

When it was operating, the company produced 70,000 pounds of smoked salmon per year and another 30,000 pounds per year of other smoked products, she said. It has five year-round, full-time employees and works with five suppliers.

The employees and suppliers were ready to start with the business upon its expected reopening this month, she said. The potential employees, in the meantime, have found alternative work, she said.

"We got our on-site inspection almost a month ago, and it went really well," Harlow said. "We were anticipating that, within couple of weeks, by mid-January we'd be back in production. So I put everything in order, with the employees and the fish suppliers. Everyone expected to be gainfully employed and supplying to Sullivan Harbor Farm. The FDA, with whom we have a good relationship, was working hard on our behalf to get us reopened. Now we're sitting idle." "It's a real hardship. We have an oil bill, an electric bill, taxes, these are due this week. And in preparation for opening, I was starting to think about ordering shipping supplies. But there's no cash flow."

Maine delegation: Other businesses also impacted

Field offices for Maine's congressional delegation said other businesses have voiced concern.

"Maine companies have reached out to Sen. King's office voicing concern about the uncertainty the shutdown creates for business, and our office has worked to provide guidance to navigate the complexities of this shutdown," a spokesman for Sen. Angus King wrote by email.

In a Jan. 4 tweet, King wrote, "Every day this partial shutdown continues, Maine people are being hurt. In Hancock, the Sullivan Harbor Farm has been forced to remain closed while awaiting final FDA approval — meaning that the business's employees can't collect a paycheck." He added, "And it's not just businesses — Calais resident Ashley Hinson lost out on a home purchase because the shutdown prevented her loan paperwork from being finalized by the Department of Agriculture."

Andrew Colvin, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine District 1, wrote by email that Pingree's office has only heard from one organization directly so far, the Genesis Fund, a nonprofit community development financial institution in Brunswick that provides financing for affordable housing and community facilities in Maine.

"They reported that funding for work in Maine is held up by the shutdown at the U.S. Treasury Department and USDA," he wrote. "The organization is awaiting disbursement of a $950,000 award from the U.S. Treasury Department that would finance the preservation of affordable housing in rural Maine communities."

Colvin said the Genesis Fund has said that if the funds are delayed, they may have to draw on a bank line of credit in order to finance vital community projects they have already committed to, costing their organization money that could have been used to loan to local projects in need. The organization is also awaiting reimbursement from USDA's Rural Development department for work on affordable housing preservation that dates back to July of 2018."

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