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Canton paper mill has prospective new owner, but Pactiv Evergreen ‘still on the hook,’ mayor says

The paper mill in Canton before its closure.
Lilly Knoepp
The paper mill in Canton before its closure.

Nearly one year after the final whistle blew at the paper mill in Canton, the site has a potential new owner – but the town’s mayor says current owner Pactiv Evergreen is “still on the hook” for its obligations related to the site.

“We’re very hopeful,” Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told BPR in a phone interview Thursday. “But I also want to be clear that Evergreen is not just going to pass the ball and exit the Canton city limits. They are still on the hook, as they should be, for many environmental responsibilities and economic responsibilities.”

Smathers’s comments come one day after Pactiv Evergreen said it signed an exclusive letter of intent with Spirtas Worldwide, a St. Louis-based company whose specialties include demolition, environmental remediation and property redevelopment.

The announcement – much like the initial news of the 115-year-old plant’s closure last year – came with little warning to local leaders and members of the community.

“Yesterday was a big day,” Smathers said. “It sort of felt like deja vu. You know, once again, Evergreen drops this major decision on us that will have tremendous repercussions.”

In a statement to BPR Thursday, Pactiv Evergreen called the letter of intent “an important milestone” and said it had worked “actively with the town of Canton and a number of potential interested parties” over the past year.

“With Spirtas’ financial resources and significant industrial redevelopment experience, we are confident they are the right partner to invest in Canton for the future,” Pactiv Evergreen said. “We look forward to working closely with Spirtas in the coming months, as well as the town of Canton and other government officials, to negotiate a sale and ensure a smooth transition.”

Eric Spirtas, President of Spirtas Worldwide, confirmed his firm had signed the letter of intent to purchase the Haywood County mill site. Spirtas said he had met with Canton officials and that the company looks “forward to a smooth transition as we invest to support the region’s economic development goals.”

“Spirtas has extensive experience in industrial redevelopment and environmental cleanup with manufacturing plants and industrial facilities, including multiple former paper mills,” Spirtas told BPR in a statement Thursday. “We are committed to operating safely and responsibly and recognize the site’s importance to the local community.”

Neither Spirtas nor Pactiv Evergreen disclosed any financial or other terms of the agreement.

Last year’s abrupt closure of the mill left the community reeling, with hundreds of workers forced out of their jobs at a site that in some cases had employed generations of family members.

Since then, uncertainty has loomed large for Canton, both economically and environmentally.

The former mill has continued to rack up environmental violations long after its closure, with conditions deteriorating to a point where the Environmental Protection Agency has now become involved.

For decades, Canton has also relied on Pactiv Evergreen to handle the town’s wastewater treatment. That arrangement is set to end next year, and plans for a future treatment plant remain uncertain. In recent weeks, the treatment site at the Canton mill has begun to omit a sewer stench that has frustrated residents and local officials.

In addition, state and local leaders have demanded that Pactiv Evergreen repay $12 million in funding it received as an economic incentive to create jobs. So far, the company has not done so – although it has sought the return of $2.5 million in property tax dollars that it says it overpaid due to an inaccurate assessment by the county, the Asheville Citizen Times reported.

In Thursday’s interview, Smathers described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about Spirtas’s potential stewardship of the project. He said he had “a wonderful conversation” with Eric Spirtas immediately after Wednesday’s announcement and that while there are still significant questions about wastewater, environmental issues and what’s next for the property, Smathers is confident they will “work through those.”

“Right out of the gate I made clear, as I have, whatever is decided [for] the future of that site, it must honor and respect not only the people here in Canton and Haywood County, but the ones that came before and the ones coming after,” Smathers said. “We have an opportunity to, I think, create the biggest economic boom in Western North Carolina history. I’d like to see every single job lost be replaced by another job – a good-paying job. And I think that Eric understood that, and we had a great conversation.”

While the future of the site remains uncertain, Smathers said he and Spirtas discussed the need to preserve some of the buildings that are part of the mill complex.

“I think that there’s obvious buildings that need to come down – especially ones that are in the flood zone,” Smathers said. “But I think there’s ones, especially the historic ones, that should stay. And we’ve agreed to that. I mean, you do not have to completely take down the whole site. I don’t expect that. I don’t think it needs to be done.”

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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