SKOWHEGAN — Cheese-maker Amy Rowbottom is moving her Crooked Face Creamery from small barn space at her family’s farm on River Road in Norridgewock to a room inside the Somerset Grist Mill in downtown Skowhegan.

The move comes with a $47,000 grant from Skowhegan’s downtown tax increment financing, or TIF fund, for operations and sales. The creamery will move into what was once targeted to be a tap room next to the Miller’s Table restaurant in the converted 1895 former county jail that houses the grist mill and other businesses.

The TIF funding was approved by the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night, along with an additional $7,500 from the downtown TIF awarded to the Maine Grain Alliance, the umbrella group of the grist mill and restaurant to further broaden the location’s identity as a Maine food hub. Maine Grains will use their TIF award toward the creation of a “worldwide” Community Oven Bake Day set for October.

Grist mill owner Amber Lambke is president and CEO at Maine Grains.

The grants previously were approved by the TIF Committee.

The vote by selectmen Tuesday night was 3-1, with Chairman Paul York the lone dissenter. York wondered if there wasn’t a better use for TIF money, which is captured tax dollars based on 2006 revenues, which are used to reinvest in the town. He said some taxpayers would like to see that money go back into their pockets.

“It’s taxpayer money,” he said. “That isn’t what it should be used for.”

Lambke stood to defend the TIF process, noting it’s a state sanctioned program used as a reinvestment tool. “Its a pot that keeps filling up,” she said.

Select board members Gene Rouse, Roger Staples and Betty Austin voted in favor of the TIFs.

“I do wish you luck,” York said to Rowbottom. “Don’t get me wrong.”

Rowbottom, 34, who grew up on the dairy farm with her brother Jack and sister Sara, said sales and distribution of her hand-made smoked ricotta cheese have led to the need to stretch into bigger space and the purchase of a milk pasteurizer.

Amy Rowbottom holds some of her cheese products she makes at her Crooked Face Creamery in Norridgewock on Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Dave Leaming

Having started making cheese commercially in 2010, Rowbottom said she still is moving slowly. Right now she has a 40-gallon kettle in a 20-by-60-foot room. The kettle heats milk, but it doesn’t pasteurize it, which is necessary in order to sell her cheese out of state.

“My business has grown a lot over the past couple of years, specifically my smoked ricotta sales,” she said. “So I’m in a position now where I’ve outgrown my space. I can’t really fit another person in here and I can’t expand my product line. And I’m trying to minimize my risks. There’s a lot of room for error, so I’m really trying to be smart about growth.”

Rowbottom said she has 70 wholesale accounts and out-of-state markets that are interested in carrying her product line, which includes Gouda-style cheese, three types of ricotta and aged cheese rind, washed with local craft beer. She gets her milk delivered in buckets, primarily from Springdale Farm in the town of Waldo, near Belfast.

Sales doubled from 2016 to 2017, she said, and in 2018 sales were up another 25 percent.

Rowbottom said she searched for suitable property, with concrete floors, and found Amber Lambke’s grist mill, where a side room next to the restaurant fit the bill.

“It’s next to the cafe, where the courtyard is — under Hooskow Radio, under Happy Knits, it’s the bottom floor,” she said. “It was going to be a tap room or bar space, additional seating for the restaurant. She’s decided to table that for a while.”

A planned cheese cave idea in the same general area of the old jail is still on the table, she said, but they are starting out small with her own cheeses.

“Step number one is me getting in there, fix up that space on the inside and build a small aging room and then work out the idea of the aging space,” Rowbottom said. “I ideally want to make more aged cheeses, but I need to have the cash flow and the cash flow is the smoked ricotta. Just with smoked ricotta last year, I put out about 5,000 pounds.”

According to a memo to selectmen from the TIF committee, the TIF payment to Rowbottom will initially be $35,000, with the additional $12,000 to be distributed as bills are submitted and approved. The motion to approve the grant was 5-0, with two members abstaining — Lambke and Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand.

“This space  will provide both space for cheese making and a new retail space for the public to buy her craft cheeses made from locally sourced milk,” according to the memo. “The Creamery has already secured the Maine Dairy Improvement loan for a new bulk tank; with additional TIF funds they hope to have the equipment installed by March 30. This should allow for a completion date of May 1, 2019.”

The project will create two new jobs, a creamery assistant and a bookkeeper.

“Our goal would be to launch the first of May, so when Farmers Market starts up I’m there and I’m cranking,” she said.

As for the Maine Grain Alliance TIF, organizers in Skowhegan will map area wood-fired ovens, such as the one at the Miller’s Table, and home bakers to join in a group bake “all on the same celebratory day,” according to the grant application. The idea, through marketing and outreach, is to have a worldwide baking network telling a story about cultural baking traditions.

“Once the Community Oven Bake Day marketing materials have been created and the web portal built, the event can live on as an annual (Maine Grain Alliance-) organized promotion centered in Skowhegan, with minor costs associated with keeping the marketing materials fresh from year to year,” the application reads. “Participation from around the world will build (Maine Grain Alliance’s) mailing list and membership  and serve to build a following for its future programs in Skowhegan.”

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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