In light of possible operational changes at the Portland Fish Exchange and after an uptick in business, the Portland Fish Pier Authority awarded the auction additional financial assistance.
Transitioning into a much more prosperous period in July and beyond, fish exchange officials have expressed optimism about increased landings and buyers after what was a particularly slow period in May and June.
An upward trend is a good sign, especially on top of the potential for an outside entity to come in and help run the business, although for now, the exchange is still seeking assistance to handle lingering financial struggles.
The exchange requested a $240,000 bailout earlier this year and received $80,000 from the pier authority in June.
Authority members OK’d another $80,000 on Aug. 8 to help pay down the exchange’s line of credit, currently more than $160,000, used to keep the business afloat during the winter.
“Since there’s been revenue, we want to beat that (credit line) down as much as we can as fast as we can,” exchange President Rob Odlin, an ex-officio member of the pier authority, said at the meeting.
The fish exchange was also granted rent forgiveness for the past 10 months, for just over $30,000, and deferred rent for an additional six months.
Authority board members were clear that the additional financial support was sanctioned because of the operational and management changes promised by the fish exchange.
At the request of the authority, the exchange issued a Request for Qualifications and Expression of Interest to solicit new outside management. Businesses interested in the task have until Aug. 24 to respond; so far, four have taken out the papers.
“I know the RFQ is in progress, that was what I really wanted to see – some tangible action, to stop the ongoing losses,” Portland Finance Director Brendan O’Connell, who represents the city manager on the authority, said. “I’m happy to support this under the assumption that things are continuing to move forward with a potential alternative business model.”
Meredith Mendelson, of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and president of the Fish Pier Authority, agreed to support the financial backing as a result of the progress the exchange has shown since the beginning of July, and because it’s in the process of exploring transition options.
Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said the RFQ has been shared with 80 parties via email and advertised statewide. He said he and Odlin have discussed putting together a review committee to help evaluate candidates.
Vessel Services is one of the interested parties, according to company President Alan Tracy, who last month informed the exchange the business planned to apply.
Landings and sales at the exchange rebounded last month, but it is still banking on the proposed changes to reverse its financial struggles and build more stability.
Odlin said business could have been even better if not for shortages of fishing crews.
“Again, the ever-popular labor shortage issue keeps rearing its ugly head,” he said, suggesting there should be discussions in the future about how to attract more people to the commercial fishing industry.
Much of the July success was credited to $38,000 in temporary rebates the fish exchange was able to provide to fishermen through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Waterfront officials and workers will be awaiting the results of the RFQ process, which if successful would be the first time since the fish exchange opened in 1986 that an outside entity would be involved in management, and this could mean a change in its business model.
In the meantime, Mike Foster, the exchange business manager, said he has enjoyed the recent activity at the auction.
“Things are moving well, for a busy time of the year with several busy weeks,” Foster said. “It’s been great.”