Editorial: While we’d like to see paper mill rejuvenated, future remains blurry

  • Future of the paper mill on the power canal in Turners Falls is uncertain. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

By now, no one needs to ask Montague town officials to keep a close eye on the bankrupt Southworth Paper Co.’s former mill on the power canal in Turners Falls.

The Southworth plant, which closed abruptly in August, sits next to the long-vacant white elephant Strathmore paper mill that the town now owns — a once proud, taxpaying mill that continues to fall further into decay with each passing year. Town leaders have pretty much written off much of the old brick Strathmore as a future parking lot for some part of the mill that may be salvaged and redeveloped some day. The last thing Montague needs is two empty former paper mills.

But town officials and taxpayers, who might rightly fear the Southworth property could follow Strathmore down the unproductive drain on taxes, might take encouragement from the news late last year that Southworth’s mill has been approved for a $4 million sale to Maine-based corporation, SBD Greentech.

If the U.S. Bankruptcy Court-approved sale goes through, SBD Greentech will acquire not only the Turners Falls mill, but also the mill equipment, remaining stock, and its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license to create hydroelectricity from the power canal.

SBD Greentech is owned by HS Manufacturing Group, whose company goal is “to provide green, renewable sources of packaging solutions that would reduce man’s carbon footprint,” according to its website.

It’s hard to know exactly how that might mesh with the Southworth plant’s more recent history as a maker of high quality, uncoated writing, technical and specialty papers, because HS Manufacturing isn’t talking, at least not until the deal is sealed.

Southworth abruptly shut down at the end of August, saying it could no longer receive financing to keep running. The company had 60 employees at the Turners Falls location, bought in 2006 as part of its acquisition of the venerable Esleeck Manufacturing Co., which had opened its paper mill in 1901.

According to Southworth’s attorney, Joseph B. Collins, the company must pay off any debts owed to municipalities for new owners to take the title. It will pay the town of Montague $275,000.

So, that’s one bit of good news. At least the town won’t get stiffed by the outgoing owners.

An SBD Greentech spokesman has declined to say much of anything about their plans until after the next hearing in federal bankruptcy court Feb. 15. So, the town won’t know for a while what the plant’s prospective new owners plan to do with the building and equipment after acquiring it. We’re hoping the company plans to put local paper makers back to work, but there could be other ways the remaining assets are used that won’t bring jobs and property tax revenue back. The worst case scenario would see another empty mill whose owners could be tempted to walk away.

But we are going to hope for the best, and assume the Selectboard, assessors and other town leaders are doing the same — while keeping a close eye on developments, ready to do what they can to facilitate the return of a working paper mill on the power canal.