IP courts reuse ideas

Published 9:50 am Saturday, January 23, 2010

FRANKLIN—Local officials say confidential negotiations involving International Paper Co. and about 20 renewable energy companies have been taking place and that IP has taken some prospects on-site to tour the facilities at the Franklin mill.

Isle of Wight County Department of Economic Development director Lisa Perry said Friday that some, but not all, of the prospects had toured the mill as recently as last week.

“They differ in size and magnitude,” Perry said of the prospects. “Some are more qualified than others. Some are startups and some are very large investor groups that are very well established. They are all (interested in the mill) because of the infrastructure on-site. That’s no secret.”

Franklin Mill Communications Manager Desmond Stills indicated Friday that it was true the company had been courting prospects, and said the company’s position on the issue had not changed.

“IP is committed to listening to any group who may know of a viable use for the mill,” Stills said.

Perry said that if negotiations between IP and a prospect were successful, it would be the first reuse project the company has ever participated in.

“Historically, when IP has closed down plants, they shut them down and often raze the facilities because they became obsolete over the years,” Perry said. “This is the first time they have really stepped up to the plate, I think in part due to the fact that they invested so much in this plant. There is true value on-site in the infrastructure. That may be one of the reasons why they have chosen to really look at reuse this time.”

She added, “It’s a big relief to us because we weren’t getting a clear signal from IP that reuse was something they were going to seriously pursue.”

John Smolak, president and CEO of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., said Friday that the organization has been referring prospects to senior management within IP.

“IP has agreed to work with the community and look at proposals that can lend itself to using some of the infrastructure that will be left in place,” Smolak said. “That is a very positive thing for the community, and hopefully it will create some new jobs and new investment.”

Smolak added, “I think through the process of interviews and looking at proposals, IP probably has begun to narrow down those (prospects) that are viable and that would be a good match for the kind of infrastructure that will be remaining there. I don’t know if there’s any guarantee that something is going to come out of it, but certainly it is very positive that we have several entities that have expressed interest in the facilities.”

Perry said IP has not said what structures would remain after paper production ceases and the mill closes at the end of the spring.

“They won’t discuss that,” Perry said. “Those assets are their business.”

Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw said he was very optimistic about a company and IP reaching a reuse agreement for facilities at the mill.

“In the near future there will be some type of business coming there,” Bradshaw said Friday. “I’m not at liberty to say exactly what I think it will be because everything is still very preliminary and extremely confidential.”

Asked if there were serious prospects, Bradshaw said, “I think in the next couple of months you’re going to be hearing a lot more. If it works out between these prospective businesses and International Paper, it will come to the point that things are going to have to come out because businesses will have to start applying for permits and other things in order to get up and running and making their business successful.”

Bradshaw credits the regional cooperation between Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the City of Franklin with the progress so far.

“We were able organize very quickly and unite on a regional front,” Bradshaw said. “Now we need to work through the government red tape and make sure that we are able to eliminate any roadblocks or burdens that may prevent a business from coming in and getting up and running quickly.”