ESOP efforts continue for IP

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Efforts are continuing to make an employee buyout of International Paper’s Natchez mill work, local leaders and federal representatives said Wednesday.

IP announced in January that it would close its chemical cellulose division &045; housed only at the 53-year-old Natchez facility &045; due to a poor market for the product.

In all, 432 employees are left at the facility. While production is set to cease Friday, most workers will stay until cleanup ends July 31, IP spokesmen have said.

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Local officials, union leaders and others trying to form an employee stock option plan to buy the mill &uot;have basically camped out&uot; at the Natchez Convention Center for several weeks working on the deal, said Laura Godfrey.

Godfrey, president and CEO of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, made her comments at Wednesday’s meeting of the chamber’s Community Alliance.

The chamber itself has raised $40,000 in one-and-a-half weeks from local businesses to help fund the ESOP group’s financial model and environmental study.

&uot;They (the ESOP group) will be making they presentation very shortly&uot; to IP officials, said chamber Chairman Fred Middleton.

Also during the meeting, Debbie Hudson of the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District said her office has applied for a grant that could bring in millions of dollars in employee training funds.

The funds, if granted, could be used in Adams, Wilkinson and Amite counties to train workers with IP or another company or group that comes in to run the mill.

&uot;We will know in the next month or two whether we got this grant,&uot; Hudson said.

Also on Wednesday, Pete Johnson, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, told members of the Natchez Rotary Club he stands ready to provide any resources at the authority’s disposal to help keep or replace the IP jobs.

That is important because &uot;Natchez is a critical mass community, because it has a whole region that dependent on how well Natchez does,&uot; Johnson said.

Johnson said that at the request of U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, he has been to Natchez-Adams three or four times offer the authority’s help. He was to be briefed on the IP situation by Economic Development Authority Director Mike Ferdinand Wednesday afternoon.

What types of resources are available? &uot;It depends on what direction (Natchez) decides to go in&uot; with its options regarding IP, including the ESOP, Johnson said.

Still, he told the club, &uot;my assessment is that, with international pressure and technological challenges, it’s going to be a long shot to keep IP.&uot;