IP still studying options

Published 9:20 am Friday, September 24, 2010

FRANKLIN—Local and company officials say that International Paper Co. could make a decision on what to do with the shuttered paper mill in Franklin by the end of the year.

Lisa Perry, director of the Department of Economic Development in Isle of Wight County, said she had met recently with some of IP’s top management.

“They indicated that they are still very involved in the due diligence process with the two consortium prospects for reuse,” Perry said Thursday. “And they went so far as to say they anticipate maybe making an announcement by the end of the year.”

Perry said the news was encouraging.

“That’s the first really tangible evidence we’ve heard of any announcement to this point,” she said. “We were pretty excited to hear that. It means that things are probably going well with respect to the ongoing negotiations and related due diligence on the reuse.

“(IP officials) have been careful to talk to us about updates versus announcements. This was the first time the word ‘announcement’ has been used. So we’re hopeful that things are going well.”

Meanwhile, the company projected a more reserved tone.

“There is no real significant update,” IP spokeswoman Donna Wadsworth said Wednesday. “We are continuing to research and study the alternatives, and continuing to have conversations with those folks who have made proposals. We anticipate that the studies and next-step decisions regarding the future of the Franklin site could be completed in the fourth quarter of this year.”

Wadsworth said the mill remains idle.

“There are still about 30 employees at the Franklin site and they’re continuing to primarily focus on site preservation,” she said. “Beyond that, (everyone) continues to study and wait for a final decision. It takes a significant amount of time to look at the possibilities, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re sifting through that as carefully as we can.”

John Smolak, president and chief executive officer for Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc., said he had also had a phone conversation with Wadsworth recently.

“She didn’t say there would definitely be an announcement; she said there might be one,” Smolak said Thursday. “That was basically all she related. They’re obviously doing the work they need to do with the companies that are potentially looking to repurpose the plant. If they have something by the end of the year, that might be announced.”

Smolak added that there could be more than two finalists in negotiations with IP.

“There are a minimum of two that are probably still involved,” he said. “There could be others. We haven’t really been privy to a lot of information beyond the time that they started this whole process.”

One of the consortiums still believed to be in negotiations with IP is the Leaf Clean Energy Co., which has ties to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. In late July, McAuliffe said his group was one of the finalists and predicted that IP would announce a sale of mill facilities in August.

Several renewable energy companies have made unsolicited proposals to IP for possible reuse of the plant, which closed in the spring. One proposal is to convert the mill, which had about 1,100 employees when the mill closure was announced last October, into a biomass energy power plant.

It is believed between 400 and 500 jobs would be created under various proposals to repurpose the IP facilities.