SWANZEY — At least 150 people showed up to a job fair Friday morning, hoping to earn a spot at a dog toy manufacturer’s new production facility when it opens in town.
Cars lined South Winchester and West streets and filled the parking lot adjacent to the Homestead Woolen Mills complex. Less than 30 minutes after the event began, BetterBone Inc. ran out of paper applications and sent someone to print more.
BetterBone, a manufacturer of edible chew toys for dogs, recently announced plans to move into the mill complex and start a new chapter for the startup. Angelo Nastovski founded the company last year in Ilion, N.Y., and started making the edible chew toys with a material from potato starch, he told The Sentinel in August. He touts a unique injection molding process that he calls “the fastest in the world.”
Nastovski has said he plans to hire 224 employees by December and pay them $19 to $20 an hour.
At Friday’s job fair, he led tours of the warehouse adjacent to the office building. BetterBone is leasing space at the mill for now, but Nastovski has said the company has the option to purchase the entire complex in six months.
The warehouse that he presented to applicants is nearly empty, save for a few boxes and one prototype machine in the corner. While pitching his vision for the company, Nastovski stood in front of a crowd of nearly 100 people and laid out the benefits he expects to offer his workers: pension plans, profit sharing, matching 401K, and full health and dental insurance with no co-pays.
Some attendees at the job fair expressed cautious optimism, concerned the pay and benefits described might be “too good to be true.” Most declined to give their names because they’re employed elsewhere and worried about retaliation.
Among the applicants were people who said they work at C&S Wholesale Grocers and Smiths Medical in Keene, Plumb Pak in Winchester and GS Precision Inc. in Brattleboro, to name a few area businesses, along with Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is in the process of being decommissioned. Almost everyone indicated they came because of the potentially higher pay.
One applicant, Jennifer Marie Bellan of Ashuelot, said there was already a crowd forming when she arrived, which was about 15 minutes before the event’s 10 a.m. start. She said she would have appreciated more organization at the event, pointing out the shortage of applications and a lack of sufficient parking.
She also wanted more information about BetterBone.
“There was nothing there with the company’s name on it,” she said. “There was nothing there that explained what was going to happen.”
She said she didn’t encounter anyone who worked for the company, besides Nastovski.
Peter Halfkenny Jr. told a Sentinel reporter at the job fair that he’s the foreman of the operation and his father is BetterBone’s vice president.
The elder Halfkenny and Nastovski were both unreachable for comment Friday evening.
Bellan said she’s only looking for part-time work, so the job isn’t a necessity for her, but said many other applicants appeared to be in more dire circumstances. She said it seemed like the company didn’t expect such a large turnout and described the crowd as indicative of a widespread problem in the region.
“It really was a picture of what underemployment and what unemployment looks like in our community,” Bellan said. “… There are people who are working several positions just to make rent. So if you’re going to say that you’re going to offer $18 to $19 an hour, that’s going to attract everybody.”
Wait and see
While rooting for the company’s success, some people in the area are guarded.
Glenn Page, chairman of Swanzey’s planning board, said repeatedly that he and the other board members are in “wait and see” mode.
In its heyday, he noted, the hundred-year-old Homestead Woolen Mills complex ran 24 hours per day and employed upward of 300 employees.
“I see this operation as ultimately being much lower key than the mill was,” Page said.
And the project is bound by what was presented to the planning board, he added.
In June, Nastovski and BetterBone vice president Halfkenny attended a planning board meeting with an update on the company’s progress. Nastovski said the operation would run 24/7 with “no plan to shut down,” according to minutes from the meeting.
Nastovski also said BetterBone would employ possibly 100 people in the first year and increase the staff to 150 workers after a year and a half.
A month later, however, Halfkenny attended a meeting without Nastovski and pitched a different plan to the board. According to meeting minutes, Halfkenny said the facility will operate five days a week, employing about 50 employees by the end of the third month.
If the business hires the advertised 224 people, or if it operates 24/7, Page said the owners would have to reappear before the planning board.
Technically, though, nothing has been approved yet. The planning board granted BetterBone’s request for a multi-tenant permit, which allows the company to operate on a portion of the property. But the board’s decision was “contingent on approval from Swanzey Fire Department and Swanzey Code Enforcement,” according to meeting minutes.
Michael F. Jasmin, the town’s code enforcement officer, said he hasn’t received the necessary documentation to move forward. The property needs a new sprinkler system and a firewall separating the space in use, Jasmin said, and the applicants must submit a plan for both projects before they can start construction.
Reviewing the plans typically doesn’t take more than a few days, according to Jasmin. But if he doesn’t receive the plans, the business can’t operate in the facility.
Jasmin said he expects to meet with the owners next week to discuss the details.
Friday’s job fair also wasn’t approved, Jasmin said, adding that the company should’ve sought permission to use the space. But given what the event was and the number of potential jobs at stake, he said the town was flexible and offered leniency.
“We’re trying to work with them, and we’re trying to cut them some slack, because we want them to be successful,” Jasmin said. “… Who doesn’t want it to work? Who doesn’t want high-paying jobs in the neighborhood?”