November 29, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
HANCOCK — By the time Thomas Fabbioli arrived at the auction of the former Vermont Plywood plant in Hancock two weeks ago, the representative from the bank was packing up to leave.
None of the 40-some people present on Nov. 13 had bid on the plant. So when Fabbioli offered $120,000 at the last minute, the building and 49 acres of land around it became his.
But the equipment was sold separately and the nature of the future economic activity at the plant, which has been Hancock’s largest employer since 1925, is not clear. What is clear is that Fabbioli will not immediately employ the 35 people who lost their jobs when on Sept. 6 the Union Bank of Morrisville, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Vermont Economic Development Authority foreclosed on Vermont Plywood.
With the Route 100 plant a crucial engine of the local economy, a lot hinges on Fabbioli’s plans. At the plant’s peak in 1969, it employed 180 people, and it employed 90 as recently as 2003, when it was owned by Chesapeake Hardwoods.
Vermont Plywood bought the plant in 2004.
As the plywood industry has struggled in the last few years, many in the area have moved with their families out of town, exacerbating an already dire situation of dwindling enrollment at the Hancock Village School, which school officials say they may have to close next year, according to longtime Hancock resident and historian Tom Perera.
“The town doesn’t have anything else,” said Perera, who attended the auction. “For 82 years, this plant has been supplying work for people. All of a sudden it looked as though it would disappear.”
Fabbioli, who hails from Manlius, N.Y., plans to use a small portion of the plant as a location for sawing and polishing serpentine marble from the Vermont Verde Quarry in Rochester, which he recently purchased.
Vermont Verde currently ships its unique green marble to Italy to be finished, a process that costs up to $15,000 per block, according to Fabbioli’s wife, Mary Margaret. Fabbioli is currently at a stone show in Persian Gulf country of Dubai marketing the Rochester marble.
At the Hancock plant, Fabbioli will employ six to 10 people to turn the stone into slabs that will be sold wholesale to fabricators worldwide and used for countertops and wall coverings.
With the rest of the 118,000-square-foot building, Fabbioli says he wants to create a central location where new businesses can be cultivated.
“My plan is to rent out some of the remaining space for (business) incubator or retail space, seasonal farmers’ markets or whatever is needed,” Fabbioli told The Herald of Randolph last week. “I hope to keep the rents low enough to make startups for new businesses viable. There will definitely also be construction jobs during the redevelopment of the building.”
Still, Fabbioli made the purchase rather quickly, he said, and his plans are not yet fully formed.
“In passing, we had talked about finding a place close by that we could use to process our material,” said Mike Solari, general manager at Vermont Verde Quarry. “Then the auction happened and it was all very fast.”
So fast that Hancock’s state representative, Democrat Willem Jewett of Ripton, who has been working with the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) to find a new owner for the plant, was surprised to hear about Fabbioli’s purchase two weeks after the auction.
“I’m encouraged that someone’s going to make use of that building,” he said. “But you can’t declare success at six to 10 (employees).”
Jewett lobbied for the original financing package — a $730,000 Community Development Block Grant and a $640,000 VEDA loan — that helped former Vermont Plywood CEO Dan Davis purchase the plant in 2004.
Since Vermont Plywood’s closing, Jewett has been working with VEDA, Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission and the Hancock selectboard to organize a forum on economic planning for the White River Valley.
If Fabbioli is successful, Jewett said, his business cultivation center could be an invaluable asset to Hancock and the surrounding towns. But it’s going to take the whole town’s involvement to make it work. And it may be too late to save the school.
“The people of Hancock can’t just wait around,” he said. “I know that valley. I know how small it is, how tight it is. If they don’t do some things to take control of their future, the market isn’t going to turn in their favor.”
For Perera, who has lived in Hancock for 40 years and tries to document “everything that’s major in town … before it passes into history and disappears,” the auction itself marked a turning point in local history.
GOING, GOING, GONE
The auctioneer, from Joseph Finn Auctioneers in Newton, Mass., began the bidding for the entire plant, including the machinery, which Perera said was worth millions of dollars, at $500,000. When no one bid, the auctioneer tried to sell the plant and surrounding acreage starting at $300,000. Still, no one bid.
At $100,000, the minimum bid the bank would accept, the auctioneer sold the plant back to the bank. Then he moved on to selling off each piece of machinery individually.
“The minute he sold one machine, he killed the plant,” Perera said. “Every piece of machinery was necessary to allow the mill to continue making plywood.”
In a report he submitted to the Addison Independent, Perera wrote, “The total of all the 209 individual items and lots came to approximately $130,000 … Office computers sold for as little as $25. Shop tools sold for as little as $10. Whole rooms filled with hardware and parts went for a few hundred dollars.”
The Globe press, which had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars new, sold for $2,500, the hot press for $3,500.
“At the end of the auction, people paid for their items and began removing them from the mill,” he wrote. “It felt a little like a funeral.”
That’s when Fabbioli came rushing in. He found that the representative from the bank was still there, and he bought the old plant right away.
“I was almost ready to stand up on my chair and cheer,” Perera said.