BAILEYVILLE — Gov. Paul LePage basked in the glow of a bright spot in Maine’s struggling pulp and paper industry Friday, participating in a ceremony marking construction at Woodland Pulp for a new tissue manufacturing plant.
Woodland Pulp held a groundbreaking ceremony at its plant to showcase construction of the St. Croix Tissue mill, which was announced earlier this year. The affiliated business unit, which represents a $120 million investment, will operate two tissue machines, employing an additional 80 people.
“This is a pleasant day,” said LePage, addressing a gathering of about 50 local, state and company officials in a parking lot outside the pulp mill under sunny skies. He called it “an enormously great day for Washington County,” one of Maine’s poorest counties.
A.K. Agarwal, CEO of International Grand Investment Corp., the parent company of Woodland Pulp, said later that the company is looking into the feasibility of purchasing other mills in Maine. “We may be looking into it,” he said. However, Agarwal emphasized the exploratory nature of the discussions and said that IGIC has made no commitments. He characterized the talks as “preliminary discussions.”
LePage alluded directly to the setbacks Maine’s pulp and paper industry has experienced as recently as the announcement a week ago that the Verso paper mill in Bucksport will close. The industry has been “going south,” he acknowledged.
In addition to the Bucksport mill, Old Town Fuel and Fiber shut down in August and the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket filed for bankruptcy in September after laying off 212 employees in February. Together, the three closures mean a loss of about 1,000 paper mill jobs in the past year.
However, two things that Maine’s pulp and paper industry have going for it are its workforce and experience, LePage said Friday. “We need the investment,” he said.
He also acknowledged that while other mills may face markets that are in decline for some paper products, demand for tissue paper will continue to increase with population growth.
LePage praised Woodland Pulp for its foresight in investing in natural gas infrastructure several years ago. “They knew that energy was a central part of the operation,” he said. Woodland invested $16 million in a natural gas pipeline in order to connect to the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline.
The governor, who joined with Agarwal and other company officials to shovel a few ceremonial scoops of sand, also referred to the trade mission he made to China to woo the investment by IGIC, recalling the 16-hour flight was “well worth it.”
He still has confidence in Maine’s paper industry, LePage told reporters later, but it needs increased access to cheaper sources of energy, such as natural gas.
LePage said he is actively pursuing talks with potential buyers of the Verso mill in Bucksport, which is scheduled to close Dec. 1. “We’re in meetings every day,” he said, talking to several prospects. “We are very, very hopeful.”
“The state is very willing to talk turkey,” he added.
“After the few weeks we’ve had,” LePage told one well-wisher later, the ceremony in Baileyville was a bright spot for the industry.
He mingled with local and company officials afterward and also spoke briefly with representatives of several unions whose members are employed at Woodland Pulp.
“He said it’s up to us,” said Darren Morrell, president of the Local 1996 union of carpenters and joiners, which has about 25 employees at the pulp mill. “Without us, it wouldn’t work.”