Former Southworth building sale likely in next two weeks

  • A pending sale of the former Southworth paper mill building may help spur more redevelopment in the canal district, Montague town officials hope. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2019 11:26:40 PM
Modified: 11/7/2019 11:26:28 PM

TURNERS FALLS — A sale of the former Southworth paper mill building is expected to go through in the next two weeks.

The soon-to-be owner, Tom Cusano, a developer from New Hampshire, has been speaking with several prospective tenants, and said that some cannabis cultivators have been especially interested. But he does not expect a tenant to move in immediately.

Town officials are hopeful that the new activity in the building will improve nearby property values in the industrial “canal district” and promote further redevelopment in the area.

The Southworth building has been empty since August 2017, when Southworth abruptly went out of business, shutting down not only its Turners Falls building, but also ones in Agawam and Seattle, Wash., and laying off about 120 employees, including about 60 in Turners Falls.

In the interim, the building’s future has been uncertain. The possibility that it could languish and fall into disrepair, like other old mills in Turners Falls, has been obvious. Considering the building’s location at a “gateway” between Turners Falls and Greenfield — at the corner of Canal Street and 5th Street, between the Connecticut River and the power canal — town officials have seen the situation as an urgent priority, fearing that deterioration of its condition would bog down property values throughout the canal district.

“I view the former Southworth mill as a critical component of the canal district’s redevelopment,” said Town Administrator Steve Ellis. “Success in that building is likely to spur interest up and down that district.”

Luckily, success in the building now seems likely. Cusano took an interest in the building last winter, and in July achieved a binding contract with the building’s owners, the former executives of the defunct Southworth company.

For much of the past year, Cusano said, he’s been doing maintenance and repair of the building, “pretending we own it, as far as taking care of it.” He’s found damage to its waterworks, due to it being left unmaintained for the 2017 to 2018 winter season. Inside, there’s some damage by vandalism, and the electricity was recently shut off.

But on the whole, he said, it’s in great condition for a mill. This will be the third mill that Cusano has rehabilitated. In 2004 he bought one in New Hampshire that was, at the time, similar to the present condition of the Southworth building. Now it has 12 tenants.

“The place is booming,” he said.

Since then, he has bought another mill building in Holyoke, which he is in the process of rehabilitating.

The Southworth building came to his attention by word of mouth, he said.

“For an old mill building, if you had to grade it on a scale of 1 to 100, this would probably be up there at 95,” Cusano said. “They took incredible care of the property.”

Now, fully expecting to take ownership of the building this month, Cusano has been pursuing tenants. Regarding potential uses, the building has some limitations, he said. It was built to take advantage of railroad tracks that are no longer there, and so truck access was not a design consideration — ruling out anything involving large-scale manufacturing or distribution. And, because of how the building is laid out, it would have to be occupied by a single tenant.

Several cannabis cultivators have expressed interest in the building, Cusano said.

“That could be a perfect tenant for the site,” he said. He’s also looked into paper manufacturers, but has had less interest there.

Hoping to improve the canal district’s viability for potential employers, the town applied for a state grant of $2 million to replace the 5th Street pedestrian bridge, the smaller brown bridge next to the green vehicle bridge. The pedestrian bridge was closed in August 2017, shortly after Southworth left, because the state Department of Transportation found that it was not up to code. The bridge is generally considered to be beyond repair, Ellis said.

The lack of easy walking access to the parking lots across the canal from the mill buildings has been seen as an obstacle to redevelopment of the canal district, Ellis said. But with redevelopment now slowly beginning at the Southworth building, the town’s chances of getting the grant are probably better than they otherwise would be, Ellis said.

“You can’t stop change from happening,” Ellis said. “We embrace the fact that, at this point in its history, that building needs to be redeveloped. We want to leverage that process to really catalyze development.”

Apart from the economic benefits of new activity in the building, the sale will give some immediate financial relief to the town. Southworth left with nearly half a million dollars in unpaid bills to various municipal offices, Ellis said: about $100,000 in unpaid property taxes, $300,000 in sewer bills, $50,000 in water bills and $16,000 in taxes for fire services. Legally, the sale cannot go through without guaranteeing that the defunct company will pay its outstanding debts.

Reach Max Marcus at
mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.




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