It's been a whirlwind two weeks for Robert Corriveau, chairman of the Mattawa Bonfield Economic Development Corporation, ever since news emerged of their acquisition of a shuttered Tembec sawmill for the bargain price of $1.
“It's been a merry-go-round,” said Corriveau, of the steady stream of interest from possible tenants for the 136-acre mill property, located just west of Mattawa on Highway 17.
“We've had several (site) visits. I've probably had five tours of the mill that takes three hours because it is such a large plant,” said Corriveau, who is also mayor of nearby Papineau-Cameron Township.
After months of negotiating, the deal with the struggling Temiscaming, Quebec forestry company was sealed Aug. 28.
The sawmill, which has sat idle since July 2008, had been steadily bleeding 500 jobs over five years. Fifty-nine staff were working at the time of the closure.
Local officials realized something had to be done to retain the mill infrastructure with rumours circulating that the buildings had a date with the wrecking ball.
Two interested companies came forward but nothing could be worked out with Tembec. Corriveau and the EDC stepped in and got authorization to negotiate.
One Italian company, with aims on developing a wood pellet plant, couldn't secure financing and withdrew.
An undisclosed southern Ontario company with expertise in hardwood flooring remains in the hunt with interest in re-opening the sawmill, but the firm has not yet brought forth a formal proposal.
This company isn't the only tire-kicker. Corriveau expected a Sept. 10 visit from a New Liskeard company with wood pellet plans and another meeting is scheduled Sept. 16 with a U.S. group with a similar proposal.
“We've got a lot of irons in the fire but nothing concrete.”
Corriveau said they remain open to any proposals, so long as they create jobs and don't contaminate the environment.
He expects more news over the next two months when he hopes to some formal proposal expected to come forward. If not, the EDC will have to winterize the plant.
The EDC's plan is to lease the mill property to a prospective tenant to ensure the community retains some measure of control. A timber allocation will be available to support the mill.
“If we sell it and it doesn't work out, we're back at square one and we've wasted our energy. We want to be in control to assure our citizens of jobs here.”
The condition of the mill is “unbelievably good,” said Corriveau, with saws in excellent shape, a fully-stocked saw filing room and a log pond that was relined prior to closure. “It was never neglected.”
The property also contains several large buildings, including a huge dimensional lumber plant with a combined 84,000 square-feet of shop and 7,000 square-feet of furnished office space.
He said it's a versatile mill that can switch from hardwood to softwood production within hours, something that's very unique in the business.
“They've left us something in excellent condition that's ready to use.”
Corriveau, who attended former Tembec president Frank Dottori's retirement party, said the the company founder always had a soft spot for Mattawa and considered it a flagship mill. “He said that will be the last mill to ever close.”
The EDC must still shell out $70,000 for two valuable pieces of equipment, a chipper-debarker and a cyclone, which circulates fresh air to the dimensional lumber plant. They plan to apply for funds to FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. Failing that, they will go to the banks.
Tembec retains cutting rights to 142,500 cubic metres of wood fibre in the Nipissing Forest Management Unit, but the Ministry of Natural Resources has assured the EDC that a new operator will have access to those timber rights.
“If somebody can prove financial ability to manage and run this mill to the satisfaction of MNR, they can obtain those cutting rights.”
Originally built in 1973 by Sklar Furniture, which added a large dimensional lumber plant a year later, the mill was taken over by G.W. Martin and expanded before Tembec acquired it.
In his pitch to Tembec, Corriveau emphasized the mutually beneficial relationship over the years between the company and the community. “They were always good to Mattawa and we needed them to come to the table one more time. If they were leaving us without jobs, then leave us the mill.”
Tembec retains a nearby log sorting yard south of the highway.