Officials guarded over McAuliffe news

Published 8:47 am Friday, February 12, 2010

FRANKLIN—Local elected and economic officials said they are optimistic, but cautious, over the news that former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is among a group of potential buyers for facilities at the International Paper Co. mill.

McAuliffe and a group of investors including Peter O’Keefe, a longtime political ally, reportedly have made an offer to purchase some or all of the infrastructure at the mill to convert it into a biomass energy power plant.

“I’m frankly surprised that he would speak about it,” Isle of Wight County Economic Development Director Lisa Perry said Thursday of McAuliffe. “We have been talking to a company that we understand he is involved in. We have been working with Peter O’Keefe on a prospective reuse for the IP site, but Terry McAuliffe’s name has never been mentioned in the course of those conversations. He may very well be involved, but we have had no interaction with him.”

Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. President and CEO John Smolak said Thursday that he had met with O’Keefe, who serves as the non-executive director for Leaf Clean Energy Co., which was incorporated in the Cayman Islands in 2007.

“In light of what all was happening over there, he was inquiring about who to contact within IP, so I referred him to the proper people,” Smolak said Thursday of O’Keefe. Smolak added that he wasn’t sure if Leaf Clean Energy, or another consortium, is negotiating with IP.

According to the Web site for Leaf Clean Energy, the company’s portfolio includes businesses involved in the production of cellulosic and sugar cane-based ethanol, solar, wind and hydroelectric power, wood-fueled biomass, waste-to-energy gasification and landfill gas-to-methane.

Perry said other companies, perhaps as many as 15, are in negotiations with IP.

“There are a number of entities that are making proposals to IP,” Perry said. “They are all renewable energy-related, but the technologies are very different in some cases.”

She added, “We only know of certain ones that IP is continuing to talk to because the companies themselves are letting us know.”

Asked if she thought an offer from O’Keefe would stand out to IP because McAuliffe was possibly involved, Perry said no.

“There are a couple of much bigger entities that are promoting a much larger scale of operations out there, versus a lot of smaller users that are just looking at pieces of the site,” Perry said. “We don’t know if IP has a preference for one over the other at all.”

She added that she thought the O’Keefe proposal was “of moderate size. It’s certainly not the biggest entity out there that we know of.”

Franklin Mill Communications Manager Desmond Stills said the company had received several unsolicited proposals for possible reuses for the plant.

“We have set a deadline of Feb. 26 for anybody who might want to submit an unsolicited proposal,” Stills said Thursday.

Local officials weighed in on the news that McAuliffe or a company with ties to him could be interested in reuse of the IP mill.

“It sounds great,” Franklin Mayor Jim Councill said Thursday. “We’re all excited about anybody that’s willing to come in and do something significant and to employ a lot of people. It’s very exciting and interesting to look at, but my guess is that if he continues to proceed, he’ll probably be one of several that would be reviewed by IP. They’ll just have to work their numbers and figure out who they want to work with.”

On McAuliffe, Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw said, “I think it’s great that he’s involved in it.”

“We’ve got a lot of prospects. We’re working with IP. They have never done anything like this. I think that has to do with the unity in the community. We’re all working together.”