By Leslie H. Dixon
OXFORD — Scores of modular home building jobs may be coming back to the Oxford Hills.
The once booming modular and manufacturing home industry, which provided hundreds of jobs in this area a decade ago before the housing bust, got a boost last week when two local area businessmen presented plans that many hope will strengthen the job and housing market in this area.
A preliminary site plan application for construction of a 70,088-square-foot building to be called ABS Modulars on Route 26 has been presented to the Oxford Planning Board. According to information provided to the board at its Thursday, Feb. 23 meeting, the building will be used for the construction of modular home buildings.
Former KBS Building Systems Manager Ray Atkisson, operating under Gemma Enterprises and Capital Holdings LLC, has a sales and purchase agreement with Steven McNally to purchase 14.7 acres of land on Main Street, across from Industrial Drive and the New Balance Factory Store for the development, according to information presented at the meeting.
According to Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman, if approved, the new business may add as many as 80 new jobs to the area.
Additional jobs may also be on the horizon following approval of a site plan application for another new manufactured housing business in Oxford.
At its Feb. 23 meeting, the Planning Board also gave John Schiavi, of Schiavi Custom Builders at 754 Main St., the go ahead to open up a mobile home sales center and sales lot on Route 26 under the name Coastline Homes of Oxford. Some 10 to 15 jobs are expected to be created once that business is operating.
Ground is expected to be broken within the next several weeks for Coastline Homes of Oxford next to Dunkin Donuts in the Welchville section of town, according to Scott Stone of Schiavi Custom Builders. He expects the business to be operating this spring.
Corey-Whitman said Atkisson is currently working with his engineers to meet the requirements of a Department of Environmental Protection stormwater management and erosion plan that he must obtain before returning to the local Planning Board with a full site plan application, which will require a public hearing. The building will be tied into the town’s existing sewer and water system.
Construction for ABS Modulars is anticipated to begin this spring with a completion date of about year, according to the preliminary site plan application.
Atkisson, a Norway resident, incorporated his business under Gemma Enterprises and Capital Holdings LLC with the state of Maine in January of this year. Atkisson worked as general manager for KBS Building Systems in Paris until a year or two ago and was production manager for the now defunct Keiser Industries from 1996 to 2002.
The news of the development of two new modular and manufactured home businesses comes on the heels of the shutdown of Keiser Homes in Oxford last year. In May 2016, at least 120 workers were displaced, leaving a measurable hole in the area’s workforce when the business closed its doors.
Following the shutdown of Keiser, only Schiavi Custom Builders, Twin Town Homes, Alternative Modular Homes, Turn Key Homes of Maine, and Speedway Homes (which sells “park” models) remained in Oxford. KBS Building Systems remains in Paris.
The area is promoted as the “Housing Capital of New England.” The name was used to promote the annual Oxford Hills Home Shows after the housing bust in 2008 shuttered many other longtime manufacturing businesses like Oxford Homes and Waterford Homes.
Local builders say as much as 83 percent of business was lost during that period. During that bleak time the larger companies, such as Keiser Industries and KBS Building Systems, relied on commercial contracts largely in southern New England to boost their production. Other modular builders such as Schiavi Custom Builders went in new directions – custom building and hiring architects and interior and exterior designers – to boost their sales.
Delivering the dream
Stone of Schiavi Custom Builders told the Advertiser Democrat that he is excited about the upturn in business and Schiavi’s desire to focus on the manufactured home business in addition to their custom modular home business.
“We’re very excited about the direction we’re going in. It’s part of the market that really suffered in the downturn,” said Stone.
Stone said Schiavi Custom Builders has decided to take advantage of the upturn in modular and manufacturing housing and open up a sales lot where “middle America” can again afford to buy their first home.
While Schiavi Custom Builders construct modular homes using finish work techniques and building methods that are more custom built, Coastline Homes will purchase modular and manufactured housing from several different companies and make them available at its new Route 26 sales lot. Initially there will be three double wide and six single wide homes on the lot.
“The middle class took the brunt,” said Stone of the housing bust in 2008. “That’s what’s coming back. We’re really happy.”
Stone said those who could afford it, continued to buy vacation homes and second homes throughout the past 10 years, but those who simply wanted to buy a first home could not afford it.
“A big part of the business was really shut down for about eight years,” Stone said. The result was not only a downturn in home buying but a downturn in jobs, which means there is now a large gap in the manufactured and modular home building workforce.
“If you were 18 and wanted to become a builder [in 2008] you really didn’t have a chance,” he said of the 18- to 28-year-olds who were unable to get jobs during the period. Now the crews are in their 30s and by the time they reach their 40s, the idea of running up and down roofs with piles of shingles on their shoulders has “lost some of its charm,” he said.
“We lost a third of the labor pool. That’s hard to replace,” he said.
Manufactured and modular housing was one of the largest industries in the Oxford Hills region, employing hundreds of people a decade ago. Stone said he is optimistic that the new businesses will help bring the industry back to its peak in the Oxford Hills.
Coastline Homes is expected to be open when the 16th annual Oxford Hills Home Show gets underway from April 21-23. A number of the businesses including Coastline Homes and Schiavi Custom Builders, Twin Town Homes and Turn Key Homes of Maine and Alternative Modular Homes have already signed up to participate.
The event, which draws thousands of potential home builders and buyers primarily from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts to the area, allows the manufactured housing industry to jointly promote its individual businesses and the industry as a whole. Norway Savings Bank is returning as the Signature Sponsor, according to the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce. The bank has loan officers at the business locations throughout the weekend to assist potential buyers with any financing and home loan questions.
“You’re really making dreams [of home ownership] come true,” said Stone.