October 17, 2017
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Despite optimism, jobs still years away for former Millinocket mill site

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff
Updated:

MILLINOCKET, Maine — A dozen potential occupants have expressed interest in the town’s former mill site, but Our Katahdin president Sean DeWitt said the volunteer economic development group doesn’t see jobs getting generated there until about 2020.

The nonprofit group, which bought the site for $1 in January, has been surprised and encouraged at the number of businesses interested in relocating to Millinocket, but has tempered its optimism with caution that a great deal needs to be done first to make the site — once the location of one of the state’s biggest paper mills — more marketable.

“I never dreamed that there was this much interest in the site,” DeWitt said during a recent interview. “I get the sense that there’s quite a few people that have had their eye on it for awhile now.”

The dozen businesses that have toured the site include biorefineries, pellet manufacturers, sawmills and packaging manufacturers — representatives of seven industries in total, DeWitt said.

The group is compiling an inventory of the 1,400-acre site’s assets; investigating the depth of the environmental assessments done on the site; working with town officials on a marketing strategy of the site that also includes the town’s assets, such as downtown and the town’s airport; and working with attorneys to resolve an IRS lien on the property, DeWitt said.

The group is confident that it will resolve the $1.5 million in local and federal taxes owed on the property for something less than that, but how much less is unknown. A good portion of the 1,400 acres is immediately marketable, but the tax issues probably must be resolved before that can happen, DeWitt said.

Once the home of a dozen paper machines and one of the nation’s largest paper manufacturers, the mill site has been dormant since the last machine on the site was shut down in 2008, forcing the layoff of about 208 workers.

A New Hampshire-based investor, Cate Street Capital, purchased the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mill sites for $1 in 2011, promising to revitalize the region’s paper industry, launch a pellet mill and turn the Katahdin Avenue mill site into an industrial park. None of that happened, and the company owed about $1.5 million in federal and local taxes before it sold the property to Our Katahdin for $1 in January.

Members of Our Katahdin — a group of present and past Millinocket residents interested in helping their town recover from the mill closure — met with representatives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection last month to discuss any environmental issues the site might have. Group members, DeWitt said, were impressed by the DEP’s desire to work with them to revitalize the site.

Determining and resolving any liabilities attached to the site, DeWitt said, will likely take 18 to 24 months.

The Our Katahdin effort dovetails with the work of another volunteer group, Katahdin Revitalization, which is approaching the problem of revitalizing the Katahdin region from another direction.

While Our Katahdin focuses on developing the mill site, Katahdin Revitalization has held five public meetings since August wherein guest speakers have taught participants basic economics. The goal: To get people to understand the concepts and the steps needed to help the local economy rebound.

“We are trying to get people to look around and see that there are all kinds of things we can do that are positive,” said John Hafford, a group member and co-owner of Designlab, a marketing firm based in Millinocket.

The speakers have addressed topics — including the future of the forest products industry, the need to “brand” the region, and how other communities have rebuilt themselves — that have helped residents get psyched about and contribute to their towns’ possibilities, Hafford said.

“Some of those examples we can learn from, and maybe some don’t apply directly, but the process of just thinking about what do we do now, and understanding that people have revitalized their economies in all different ways, is important,” Hafford said.

Each session has drawn more than 50 people, Hafford said.

He encouraged people interested in learning more about Katahdin Revitalization to visit the group’s Facebook page.

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