What happens now with IP facility?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; With union representatives ending their efforts at an employee buyout of the International Paper mill, what could be in the future for the facility in Natchez?

One of the main challenges, say officials, is making sure the mill stays intact.

&uot;The last time we talked to IP, they were adamant that they would put no more money into this facility,&uot; said Monty Payne of Pace International, one of the unions involved in the project. &uot;There are certain things that have to be protected, and it takes money to protect them. Freezing temperatures? What will that do?&uot;

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A new CEO at Natchez Fiber would have to begin the process again, Payne said, setting back the timetable by 60 to 90 days, taking negotiations into the winter months and thus raising the risk of damage to some of the equipment still in place at the mill. Former Natchez Fiber CEO Bob Taylor left the project last month.

Getting IP to agree to protect the equipment has been one of the challenges, Payne said. &uot;Properly mothballed, it could stay there for years. But it takes money and manpower to do that. Whoever buys the mill will have to look at all of that.&uot;

Although it’s doubtful that another wood pulp-related operation would be placed in the facility, it could be used by other types of industry, said economic development officials close to the efforts.

Woody Allen, chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority, wouldn’t give details of what potential users of the facility could be.

But he said the EDA will go back to pursuing leads it was checking out several months ago prior to Natchez Fiber’s formation.

&uot;About six months ago we had looked at some of these opportunities. Then when the Natchez Fiber plan started to move forward, we put our plans and ideas on the shelf&uot; to support the ESOP effort, Allen said.

&uot;We tried to give Natchez Fiber as much time as possible to do what they needed to do,&uot; said Jeff Dukes, director of existing industry for the Mississippi Development Authority.

The first step will be to meet with IP officials, hopefully in the next week, Dukes said.

That will be done to see what assets of the mill the company plans to move to other IP locations &045; and when &045; and what the price would be for the remainder of the property, said Jeff Dukes of the Mississippi Development Authority.

IP spokespeople were not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

&uot;The first thing we’ve got to do is acquire the asset, but as far as a timetable (for acquisition is concerned), we can’t address that until we sit down and talk to IP,&uot; Allen said.

&uot;It’s their property, and they’re in control of the time schedule,&uot; Allen said. Still, he added, &uot;We’re hoping they (IP) will be willing to work with us, and they’ve given indications in the past that they might.&uot;

Dukes would not speculate when IP might dismantle equipment at the plant. He acknowledged that would make it more difficult to attract another industry to the property, but added that dismantling &uot;won’t be an overnight process.&uot;

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove earlier in the negotiations agreed to ask the Mississippi Legislature to meet in special session to issue a $20-million loan for the venture.

Representatives of Musgrove’s office weren’t available late Tuesday afternoon.

Just a few weeks prior to the announcement, both Natchez and Adams County governing boards had also agreed to help raise funds through bond issues.

Still, getting capital funding sources together wasn’t easy, Dukes said.

&uot;The (Natchez Fiber) guys down there Š I just hope the community knows what a tremendous job they’ve done,&uot; Dukes said. &uot;But there were some issues they could not overcome in terms of getting the capital in a timely manner.&uot;

Will those sources of funding still be available if another industry comes calling at the mill, and how much funding would be needed for such a venture? It’s too early to tell, Allen said.

When it comes to compiling such information, he said, &uot;We’re still in the infancy stages at this point.&uot;

Still, both Allen and Dukes said they aren’t giving up hope for the facility just yet.

&uot;What we would hope is to envision other opportunities out there on the property to work with IP to see if we can acquire the asset in some way, Š not necessarily for a pulp operation but for future attractions of industry,&uot; Allen said.

&uot;I do understand the EDA has had conversations&uot; with other prospects regarding the property, Dukes said.

Tuesday’s announcement &uot;is a hard blow, but there are activities in the wings,&uot; he added. &uot;If it’s not possible to establish a mill, that (facility) could be used for other applications. We may have lost the battle to continue the mill as it was, but it’s not over yet.&uot;