BUCKSPORT — This weekend, town officials will hold the first of several public forums to consider Bucksport’s direction after the closure of the local paper mill last month.
Scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at the Performing Arts Center at Bucksport Middle School, the event will give town leaders a chance to address questions about the mill closure and hear residents’ concerns and suggestions.
They’ve waited until now to hold any public conversations, in part due to the slow trickle of information concerning the local facility’s fate. Until last month, Verso Paper Corp. had been largely silent around the closure plan it originally announced in October.
In early December, the company finally announced it was selling the mill to Montreal-based AIM Development, a metal scrapping firm local officials expect will demolish the 85-year-old mill.
That sale isn’t final. Several local unions have sued both companies in an attempt to block the deal, claiming Verso didn’t give other papermakers a fair shot at buying the mill and repurposing it to create another pulp product.
They argued the Tennessee company was selling the mill to avoid antitrust concerns involving a separate merger it is going through with NewPage Holdings.
Governor Paul LePage also recently requested that Maine regulators scrutinize the deal to make sure Verso isn’t violating language in a contract with the state concerning energy it delivers to the grid from a power plant located on the mill site.
Last week, Verso’s merger was supported by federal regulators. In a statement, the company announced that NewPage would divest two of its paper mills — one in Rumford, Maine — to placate concerns about the resulting operation being a monopoly.
Verso now predicts the merger will go through this month, according to last week’s statement. The new company will bring an estimated $3.5 billion in annual sales and employ 5,800 workers in eight mills across six states.
With the 800-pound gorilla — which pays almost half of Bucksport’s property taxes — making every attempt to pack up and leave, locals are starting to move on.
“There’s been a few comments, either in the public media or wherever, that Bucksport’s going to die. Well it’s not going to die, and that’s what we want to get to people. We’re not going to curl up and die,” Councilor Byron Vinton III said at a press conference Monday. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re going to come through this better than we are now.”
That press conference was called to formally announce Saturday’s forum, which will provide residents their first chance to join the post-Verso conversation en masse.
Before becoming Bucksport’s town manager last summer, Derik Goodine served the same role in several Maine municipalities that — unlike Bucksport, which has a council style of government — held annual town meetings.
This weekend’s event will be meaningful, Goodine said, because Bucksport’s semiweekly council meetings don’t turn out large crowds.
“I think we don’t always get to engage the public as much as we would like. We do have a number of people that come to the meetings, but not hundreds of people, or even half that,” Goodine explained.
“We don’t really get that many opportunities to have public forums and sit and listen to people, so when we craft our policies, create strategic plans, the impetus will be the comments from the public, what they desire, what they want.”
In fact, Goodine said he’d been planning to hold forums even if the paper mill hadn’t closed down, but that last fall’s announcement gave new urgency to the idea.
Town representatives also have been soliciting comments informally, at a booth set up on election day and via an online questionnaire linked to the town’s website.
Over 100 comments have come in, Goodine said, and they’ll help steer Saturday’s conversation.
To maximize its own ability to respond to residents, the council approved hiring Deb Burwell, a nonprofit consultant, to facilitate the meetings, Goodine added. She’s moderated several recent conversations about the fate of Wilson Hall.
“It would be presumptuous of us to try to plan for our future” without reaching out to the residents, said Councilor David Kee. “The announcement of the mill closure was definitely not something we expected to happen so soon. It wasn’t a wake-up call so much as a call to arms to begin now in reinventing Bucksport and begin a new period of economic renewal and discovery.”
The town hasn’t decided how many forums it will hold.
In related news, the council also will be voting on an ordinance this week that would create requirements for any party wanting to demolish a structure in town limits.
Goodine said the proposed rules were partially inspired by the pending sale of the Verso facility to AIM, a firm with a record of scrapping former paper mills.