Provincial cabinet minister Greg Rickford has thrown his support behind the reopening of the former Fort Frances pulp and paper mill under potential new ownership.
Rickford, Ontario's energy and Northern development and mines minister, is backing the Town of Fort Frances' efforts to gain control of local wood rights from Resolute Forest Products and save the mill buildings from demolition.
"We will work with any successful bidder on securing wood supply for the Fort Frances facility," said Rickford in a statement released one day before Resolute's March 15 deadline to take bids on the property.
"I stand behind the people of Fort Frances, and I am very focused on seeing this important asset reopen, and bring good jobs back to northwestern Ontario."
It was a great relief to Mayor June Caul.
"He's definitely on the side of Fort Frances and on the side of having the mill sold to someone who is going to operate it. He is going to make sure that that happens if and when somebody puts in a proposal."
The northwestern Ontario town has been supportive of a proposal by Repap, a consortium of investors with reported experience in the forest products industry, to buy the shuttered site from Montreal-based Resolute and reopen it.
Resolute announced the permanent closure of the mill in May 2014.
Repap, now under the new banner of Rainy River Packaging Inc., has submitted a "multi-million-dollar" purchase offer to Resolute, according to a town news release.
Caul believes the former Wynne government allowed Resolute to move wood from the Crossroute Forest, which was designated for Fort Frances under the Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL) agreement, and ship it to the company's other operations in Atikokan and Thunder Bay.
"That was our big fight," said Caul. "We needed the government to realize what had been going on and realize it was their job to make sure that wood was reallocated back to Fort Frances," providing the potential to a new owner to restart the business.
A Resolute spokesman insisted in February that the loss of fibre from the Crossroute would have significant downstream impact on the company's other operations in northwestern Ontario.
The company also maintains any prospective mill buyer must sign a non-disclosure agreement before negotiations can begin.
Caul said Rickford indicated to her he favours transparency throughout the mill sale process, which includes discussions with the province on access to Crown wood.
Resolute is the SFL holder for the Crossroute Forest, but the Town of Fort Frances argues that the company holds a monopoly on those wood rights, which is preventing another industrial player from acquiring the mill.
For years, Fort Frances and the surrounding communities have been working to obtain an Enhanced Sustainable Forest Licence (ESFL) from the province in order to free up more wood for other regional producers.
"It's starting to feel like something is going to happen here, for sure," said Caul, who remained guarded but optimistic.
Even if the mill doesn't restart, Caul wants those wood rights under local control for any area business that wants fibre for a new startup or an existing operation. Caul hopes Rickford's words are enough to scare off Resolute bringing in a "restorative development" company to town that will begin demolition of the mill.
She believes that firm is Riversedge Development, a Sault Ste. Marie company which has been behind the demolition of forestry mills in the Sault, Iroquois Falls and Red Rock, among other brownfield sites.
If there was no suitable buyer for the mill, Resolute has a backstop agreement to bring in the site remediator.
That agreement would close by May, at the earliest. Resolute spokesman Seth Kursman declined comment on the identity of the company, based on non-disclosure agreements signed with "various parties."
"It is inappropriate for us to comment on rumours and speculation."
Based on conversations Caul has had with individuals in those communities, she feels Riversedge has a dubious track record for community redevelopment.
"We've heard enough from other places that we made up our minds that they're not going to do that with Fort Frances."
The town was prepared to exercise its own muscle in employing municipal site plan control to prevent the demolition.
Caul said the town will now await the outcome of negotiations between the two companies.
"We're counting on this deal going through and having a positive result here."
The town's efforts to save the mill and encourage a new operator has drawn support from other communities, First Nations leadership, business groups and organized labour.
"We've all come together as one big community and it has brought us together," Caul said. "This mill will benefit every single person and family throughout the district as it has before."