BANGOR, Maine — A California investment firm that liquidated the only papermaking facility it ever owned successfully bid $5.4 million for the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket on Tuesday.
Sharon Kopman, who bid on behalf of Hackman Capital Partners of California, said that finding an operator to reopen the paper mill is an option. Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Los Angeles, the privately held, asset-based investment firm owns 25 million square feet of industrial property throughout the country but does not operate any paper mills, she said.
“All of our options are open,” Kopman said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Louis Kornreich approved the deal Tuesday in a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building. He signed an order authorizing the sale late Tuesday afternoon.
Portland attorney Randy Creswell, representing the mill’s bankruptcy trustee, told Kornreich that none of the bidders were “obvious operators” of a mill. Creswell also said that Hackman could sell the mill to a paper producer.
A union official said he had no doubt that papermaking will never return to East Millinocket.
“The successful bidder has no idea what they want to do with the assets with one exception — they know that they do not want to make paper,” United Steelworkers Union representative Duane Lugdon said. “They would sell the assets for a profit to someone who would like to make paper again, but if someone like that existed, they would have been tossing their hat into the bidding today.
“The fact that no one wants to operate the assets in East Millinocket is not something anyone would have wanted to hear, but unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect that the East Millinocket mill will ever run paper again,” he added.
With its 256 workers, the mill made several grades of uncoated paper, including newsprint and telephone directory grades. It was the Katahdin region’s largest single taxpayer and employer, and its shutdown in January was devastating, said Mark Scally, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen.
“There are a lot of tears being shed, and not just by the people that worked in the mill. By the community,” Scally said. “It was their mill, and they took pride in that mill. They worked hard. Now they are looking at the possibility of it not being there anymore.”
United Steelworkers Local 37 President Stu Kallgren said he would wait to hear from Hackman officials. With an average age of 58.5, the mill employed one of the oldest sets of workers in the country, and “they want to work,” said Kallgren, whose union represents most of them.
“ A lot of them want to work until they’re 70. They don’t want to collect unemployment and food stamps. A job. That’s all they want,” he said.
A call seeking comment on the sale from Gov. Paul LePage’s office was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Hackman bought a newsprint and directory-grade paper mill in Snowflake, Arizona, for $13.4 million in a bankruptcy sale in 2013. The company said that it liquidated the mill because previous owner Catalyst Paper had removed vital papermaking equipment from the site. It also purchased a neighboring railroad, which it continued operating.
Kopman said after the bankruptcy court hearing on Tuesday that the Snowflake facility was the only paper mill Hackman has purchased. Hackman led that deal, which also involved investment from Capital Recovery Group, whose president was behind the stalking horse bidder, GNP Acquisition LLC, for the East Millinocket mill.
Hackman sold the Arizona mill to another firm that is trying to market the property, said Paul Watson, Snowflake’s town manager.
“What’s left is the shell of most of the buildings,” Watson said.
“Everything inside [the buildings] that could be stripped out was stripped out,” he added. “[Hackman officials] really didn’t have anything in mind, per se, except to sell the mill and make a little profit for themselves.”
Hackman manages about $1 billion in property across 270 facilities of various types, a portfolio that late last year included about 139 bakery facilities and equipment it bought for $62.5 million through a portion of Hostess Brand’s massive bankruptcy.
Hackman did help Snowflake with a $7 million loan in 2013, extending the payback deadline several times, and still awaits payment, Watson said.
“Knowing that that was a community benefit, they were willing to work with us, so I give them credit for that,” Watson said.
Four other companies submitted bids for the East Millinocket mill. GNP Acquisition, which submitted the stalking horse bid of $2.6 million for the East Millinocket mill, was one. AIM Development, Mac-Butler and Maybid LLC were the rest.
Bidding began at $2.9 million, but the final two bidders were Hackman and GNP Acquisition, which has been running the wastewater treatment plant, that also serves the town, and doing routine maintenance to keep pipes from freezing.
A stalking horse is a bidder who is chosen before an auction to ensure there’s a starting bid and a willing buyer if no better bids are received. An online search revealed that one of the principals who signed the asset-purchase agreement on behalf of GNP Acquisition, William Firestone, is president of Capital Recovery Group, an auction and appraisal firm, according to its website, crgauction.com.
The stalking horse bidder had agreed to continue to operate the wastewater treatment plant for East Millinocket residents for six months, but Hackman did not.
Town and state officials will likely have to negotiate a deal to continue treating town wastewater, Creswell said, but the operation will continue “for the foreseeable future.”
East Millinocket probably will have to construct a new wastewater facility “so this would not happen again,” Scally said. A 2011 estimate placed that cost “north of $1 million.”
The mill has most recently been owned by two separate entities, both of which have filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing more than 1,000 creditors. GNP East Inc. owns the land and buildings at the shuttered mill. GNP Maine Holdings LLC owns the mill’s papermaking equipment. The town paid the company about $24,000 annually to treat its wastewater, Scally said.
Before the auction, trustee Pasquale “Pat” Perrino said that 30 percent of the sale price would go to about 120 unsecured creditors that have filed about $13 million in bankruptcy court claims. He said after the hearing that he did not know exactly how much money that would be.
The sale must close by Friday, Creswell said. Creswell credited Perrino with doing “pretty remarkable” work getting so many bankruptcy participants on the same page so quickly.
One of the benefits of the sale to Hackman, Creswell said, is that the company has enough funding that it doesn’t have to hurry in deciding the fate of East Millinocket’s mill.
“They are a sophisticated outfit with a lot of resources,” Creswell said. “They will have the luxury of time.”
BDN staff writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.