OLD TOWN, Maine — The fate of the University of Maine research center for wood-based products located on the former Expera pulp mill site is up in the air, according to a university official.
“We originally leased from Old Town Fuel & Fiber, and when it sold to Expera, we signed a lease with them,” Jake Ward, UMaine’s Vice President of Innovation and Economic Development, said Friday. “We would hope to continue leasing with the new owner. We’re [leasing] month to month right now because of the transition they’re going through.”
Researchers within the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute are working on campus to create and commercialize new wood-based bioproducts that they test on a larger scale at the Technology Research Center, which opened about five years ago and is located in the mill’s former finished product storage area on the southern portion of the site. There are nine tenants in the research center that employ 15 people.
“We do not have a backup plan at this point,” Ward said. “We have been looking around. To put it frankly, our hope is the new owner will see the value and continue to provide us access, as we have in the past.”
The Technology Research Center validates, demonstrates and helps develop commercialized fuel, chemical and advanced material technologies made from forest bioproducts, Ward said.
Over the years, researchers have worked on creating industrial sugars that can be made into fuel, other biofuels, biochemicals and other value-added products, some that “certainly can be used to replace petroleum-based products,” the UMaine official said.
The products being researched are “bio-based, green and non-GMO [genetically modified organism],” which are growing in popularity, Ward said.
Wisconsin-based Expera Specialty Solutions announced at the end of September that it was closing the local pulp mill it purchased in 2014 from bankruptcy court. Officials with Expera blamed the closure on the declining value of the Canadian dollar, excess pulp supply in the marketplace and relatively expensive wood costs in Maine, according to an email from Expera spokeswoman Addie Teeters.
About 195 workers at the mill in Old Town, which has provided pulp for the parent company’s four mills in Wisconsin, lost their jobs, with the last expected to walk out the doors next week, Teeters said Friday.
“There is still a skeleton crew at the mill,” she said in an email. “People have been exiting the mill since October. Expera has been focused on an orderly shutdown focusing on protecting the environment and the assets for future uses. Expera cannot comment on future plans for the site.”
Expera hopes to sell the local mill, according to Teeters.
UMaine initiated discussions with Expera about buying the 140,000-square foot building, for which they occupy about 40,000-square feet, but those negotiations have gone nowhere.
“Exprera said, ‘Yes, it’s up for sale,’ but they want a commercially reasonable price,” Ward said, noting talks broke off after he talked about what the university could afford to pay.
Ward declined to provide the amount the university offered, but he did add that, “Expera has been very open and helpful.”
Old Town city officials also have discussed the situation with UMaine officials and hired an independent assessor to provide them with an assessed value of just the research lab, City Manager Bill Mayo said this week.
He said keeping the Technology Research Center in the city is “extremely important.”
“What we’re trying to do is figure out if we can help get that deal done,” Mayo said. “We certainly will try to assist them.”