Almost four years ago, the Old Town pulp mill, north of Bangor, was shut down. Nearly 200 workers were affected. But last fall, a subsidiary of a Chinese company purchased the mill, and now it has come back to life.
Despite the mill’s tumultuous past, some workers say they are optimistic about its future.
On Tuesday, hundreds of workers and executives gathered at the Old Town pulp mill to formally recognize the site’s reopening after it closed for more than 3 1/2 years. Randy Chicoine, the vice president for the mill’s new owner, ND Paper, told workers that the site required millions of dollars in investments.
“The investments that we’re making are to benefit the community, are to benefit the employees, ultimately benefit the business, with all those others in mind,” he said.
The mill has an up-and-down history. It has been running on and off for more than 150 years, primarily producing pulp and tissue paper. But, as it was for many of Maine’s pulp and paper mills, Old Town began to see its business head south in the early 2000s. The operation repeatedly changed hands and shed jobs.
By 2015, the Wisconsin-based company that owned the site shut it down and laid off nearly 200 workers, citing a drop in demand for tissue paper and a decline in the Canadian dollar. It was one of several pulp and paper mills that closed across the state.
“And when they’re demoing these places — Lincoln, Millinocket, Bucksport — we never thought this place would open this time,” said Thomas Higgins, who started work in maintenance at the Old Town Mill in 1980.
After witnessing years of multiple sales, Higgins said he doubted that it would ever reopen after closing down in 2015.
“In 3 1/2 years of being closed, I thought we’d be in the same situation they would be. That this place was never going to open again,” he said.
But last fall, ND Paper — a subsidiary of the Chinese company Nine Dragons Paper (Holdings) Limited — purchased the mill. The company announced it would restart operations and change the business strategy, moving from hardwood to softwood kraft pulp. It would also have Old Town share some administrative duties with another mill it owns in Rumford.
On Tuesday, CEO Ken Lieu said the company will look at sending pulp to both the U.S. and its factories in China.
“The needs of pulp in China’s market, and the resource advantages of the U.S. manufacturing sites, are complementary and mutually beneficial,” he said.
Since it bought the mill, the company said it has added about $46 million in investments to the site on improvements, like restoring equipment and reconnecting utilities. It has also hired about 130 people, many of them former mill workers, from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants.
Higgins said while he has heard promises from past investors, he believes the new owners’ vision of being a “100-year-company.”
“I’m 60 years old now. And I’m going to stick it out as long as I can, to make sure this place works. And I feel good now, because my son’s here now. Just got hired. And I hopefully see him here for his whole life, career. And ND, hopefully, is going to do that,” he said.
The company estimates that it will produce about 150,000 metric tons of pulp to start, with plans to eventually increase that output to 270,000 metric tons.
Originally published 5:05 p.m. Aug. 13, 2019