BAILEYVILLE, Maine — From members of Maine’s congressional delegation to local shopkeepers, a chorus of cheers was raised over the sale of Domtar’s Woodland paper mill Friday in the hope it may signal a turning point for Washington County.
The $64 million sale to a Hong Kong investment group, International Grand Investment Corp., which focuses on the global hardwood pulp industry, was completed Friday morning. The mill is now known as Woodland Pulp LLC, and the 300-plus employees are all expected to be retained.
“Good things are happening in Washington County,” said state Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who visited with the employees and new owners at the mill Friday morning.
“I’m really excited,” Raye said. “This is the best news for the mill in terms of its long-term future.”
The mill was Domtar’s only hardwood mill. Domtar, which purchased the facility in 2001, specializes in paper and softwood pulp, and the sale to a hardwood pulp broker is being perceived as stabilization for the Baileyville mill, which is located in the village of Woodland. The hardwood mill is the second bought in the U.S. by IGIG. The first is in Oregon.
“What encourages me so much is that hardwood pulp is [IGIG’s] focus,” Raye said. “They will be front and center as the owners and they are the customers. This is also good news for the port of Eastport, which ships all the pulp. This could open up new Asian markets.”
Domtar announced the sale in a hastily called press conference Friday morning. The new owners did not issue any statements and were not available after the announcement.
April Lee, the manager at the Baileyville Irving Big Stop, said a lot of her customers are mill workers.
“It’s the only thing around here for major employers,” Lee said Friday afternoon. She said none of the workers knew about the sale until they arrived at the Big Stop for their morning coffee and read about it in the Bangor Daily News.
“There is always talk around a small town,” she said, adding that workers said things were being done a bit differently at the mill, causing them to be curious. “It didn’t come as a complete surprise, I guess,” Lee said.
She said that a few of the workers expressed skepticism. “They are a bit uneasy. Change is always hard, but they are hoping this will make the mill better and more secure.”
Woodland LLC spokesperson Scott Beal said a general meeting was held early Friday with the leadership of organized labor and salaried staff at the mill. The company was also in the process of notifying its vendors of the sale.
“The news was very well-received (by employees) and it should be,” Beal said. “This is very good news.” Beal acknowledged that the Woodland mill was never a strong part of the Domtar company. “Now we are part of an organization whose strategy focuses on hardwood pulp.”
“We are happy for any development that brings stability to our area,” Baileyville Town Manager Linda Pagels-Wentworth said Friday. “Since only about a third of the mill employees live in Baileyville, this is obviously great news for the entire area and local businesses. The impact of the mill’s payroll is huge here and affects the entire region. We welcome IGIG to town.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said she had a teleconference with John Williams, the CEO of Domtar, early Friday.
“During our conversation, Mr. Williams assured me that this sale would protect the jobs of the mill workers and, in his judgment, bring new market opportunities to the mill because the new owner has a greater knowledge of Asian markets than does Domtar,” Collins said. “Mr. Williams expressed confidence in the future of the mill under this new ownership.”
“The Domtar plant has long been known for its high quality work and dedicated employees,” Collins said in a prepared statement.
Raye said that Washington County appears to be turning an economic corner this year with stabilizing actions such as the sale of the mill. He noted that the sale comes on the heels of other positive economic news in Washington County such as a $10 million grant to Axiom of Machias for broadband expansion; a $12 million grant to Ocean Renewable Power Co. at Eastport for hydro-turbine research; an $8 million expansion project at the port of Eastport; and two major military contracts at Source for Native American Products in Princeton.
“The tide is turning,” Pagels-Wentworth said. “Once you create an incubator environment, the private sector arrives.”
“Washington County is the beginning of the state, not the end,” County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said Friday while expressing pleasure at the $64 million investment in the county. “More and more people, both in and out of Maine, are beginning to realize the implications of that.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also commented on the upswing in Washington County.
“The last two years have been a challenge due to our nation’s struggling economy, and the Washington County community has responded in a way indicative of Maine’s hallmark characteristics — through hard work and a can-do spirit,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “It is my sincere hope that this transition will ultimately provide stability for the region and to each and every person at the mill.”
Gov. John Baldacci on Thursday night praised the sale and Friday promised to work with the new company owners.
“I look forward to meeting with their leadership team to review their plans for the continued successful operation of the Woodland mill, and I’m optimistic that we can develop the same open lines of communication and cooperation that existed between my administration and Domtar,” Baldacci said.