Cutler: Maine should buy Verso’s Bucksport energy plant if new paper mill operator not found

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PORTLAND — Eliot Cutler has called and written to the CEO of Memphis-based Verso Paper, asking the company to sell its Bucksport mill to a buyer that would continue to make paper there.

If not, the independent gubernatorial candidate said that as governor he would promote a plan to have the state buy Verso’s energy assets to provide low-cost power to businesses at a new industrial park near the mill, which is slated for closure Dec. 1.

“If I am elected governor next month, and if it becomes apparent that there is no sound opportunity to continue the operation of the paper mill, I will want to discuss with you a Maine Energy Finance Authority purchase of the energy plant,” Cutler wrote to Verso Paper president David Paterson, referring to a state financing agency that he has proposed creating.

The purchase would be funded through a state revenue bond, taken out against future energy sales from the power generation assets.

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“MEFA would own and oversee the operation of the plant,” Cutler said.

In the immediate future, he said, the state should focus on providing assistance to workers, but in the long term, it must “start looking to a future for Bucksport that may not involve papermaking.”

During a news conference, Cutler said Paterson was surprised by the candidate’s request and said that the publicly traded company has for months considered selling its natural gas-, oil- and biomass-fired turbines that employ about 70 people. The mill, which uses power from those sources, employs about 500 people. Cutler said separating those assets stands to mean trouble for the mill.

“If we learned anything at all from the Great Northern experience, when the dams were stripped away from the mill, we’ve learned that that can be the beginning of the end,” he said. “These energy generating assets at the Verso site have, I think, the potential to make Bucksport an extraordinarily attractive location for all kinds of manufacturing and other commercial and industrial operations.”

The Bucksport paper mill’s closure is the third in Maine so far this year, resulting in the cumulative loss of more than 1,000 paper mill jobs.

For that reason, the mill’s closure has become a topic of discussion for all three candidates for governor, who will take the stage for their first debate Wednesday during a morning meeting of the Portland Regional Chamber.

Democrat Mike Michaud last week unveiled a six-point plan to help the state’s paper mills, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage said that his administration is helping to find a buyer for the Bucksport property.

Cutler took jabs at both candidates in his remarks Monday.

“As governor, I will have failed miserably if a company like Verso shuts down a facility like the Bucksport mill, and my only response is that I was surprised or that I plan to hold a summit,” he said, adding that he would create a “watch list” of major employers to try and project when trouble might be afoot for a certain industry or company.

LePage said Verso did not give him advance notice of the planned closure. The company is publicly traded, which means it has to keep information such as closures and other “material corporate events” secret until it files formal and public notice with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

LePage’s administration called an emergency meeting with his economic development staff and rearranged his schedule to travel to the Bangor region last week after Verso’s closure announcement. Michaud’s plan included holding a summit of industry leaders.

The Democrat’s plan, announced last week, also includes proposals to work with other states to address regional energy issues, creating a reserve fund for municipalities to deal with unexpected closures, establishing stronger laws enforcing economic development and job creation promises from companies getting tax breaks and supporting the diversification of power generation resources in Maine by signing long-term contracts with renewable energy sources.

“U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has proposed a real plan to help Maine’s manufacturing sector. Candidate Eliot Cutler has written a letter,” Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Michaud campaign, said in an email.

Alex Willette, spokesman for LePage’s campaign, issued a statement Monday saying the Maine Department of Labor has been working with the mill’s employees to help them through the closure and that the governor and his economic development team are working to find a buyer.

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