Negotiations continue as mill closure looms

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OLD TOWN (AP) – Georgia-Pacific Corp. and the state were zeroing in on a deal with Maine investors interested in operating the mill, laid-off workers said.

Workers who will lose pay and benefits on Monday were told that the investors may be close to a deal. But the workers were also told that negotiations probably won’t be concluded before they’re officially laid off next week.

State Economic Development Commissioner Jack Cashman attended one of Thursday’s meetings to explain the state’s progress in finding a buyer and answer questions. Closed-door negotiations were continuing on Friday.

“I think we’re having some success, but I don’t want to minimize the issues that are left,” Cashman told The Bangor Daily News.

Workers leaving the session appeared pleased to get some answers.

“We’re going to get a severance package, and they’ll be paying that out after the 15th,” Ron Cote of Old Town said Thursday.

Thursday’s meetings weren’t public, but some workers were willing to comment as they left the building. Most said the meeting went well.

More than 400 workers have been left without jobs since GP announced on March 15 that the mill would close unless a buyer came forward. Four wood chip mills in Costigan, Milo, Portage and Houlton that supplied the mill also were closed.

The investor group and an out-of-state paper company emerged as the two parties interested in pursuing a deal after eight or nine parties toured the paper mill. As of Friday, it appeared that the investor group was the only one still in the running.

The investors and GP and the state were working against a tight deadline.

Monday marks the end of the 60-day period in which GP agreed to keep the mill operational to allow the state time to find a buyer. Cashman has said he’s optimistic that a deal will be struck, but he said it may not fall within that timetable.

As for what happens Monday, nobody seemed to know.

“I’m hoping that we have a positive announcement, but we don’t know yet,” Cashman said.

The state has had success in finding buyers for other mills.

Eastern Fine Paper Co. closed mills in Brewer and Lincoln, displacing 750 workers in 2004. The Brewer mill remains closed but the Lincoln mill later reopened under new ownership.

Great Northern Paper’s mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, which together employed 1,110 workers, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003. Both mills later reopened under new ownership with a smaller work force.

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