Judge Orders Smurfit-Stone to Consider Mill Sale

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A federal bankruptcy judge has ordered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. to work with representatives of two communities where it has closed mills to discuss possible future uses for the properties.

Smurfit-Stone has closed mills in Frenchtown and in Ontonagon, Mich., but the company had refused to meet with community officials interested in finding other uses for the facilities.

On Friday, a Delaware bankruptcy judge told Smurfit-Stone officials to gather and release necessary financial information about the mills’ operating and facilities costs — information critical to an effort to find new buyers.

On Monday, the company said it would entertain future uses for both plants.

“It was a first good step in moving things forward,” said Dick King, president of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. “They said they are willing to cooperate and willing to talk to potential buyers.”

Both communities will have to sign nondisclosure agreements to protect Smurfit-Stone from the public release of proprietary information.

In the meantime, King and representatives from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development were putting together a list of questions they want Smurfit-Stone to answer in its financial statements.

“It’s a very complex facility out there,” King said. “In order to consider reuse opportunities, we need to be able to analyze things like engineering data and operational histories.”

King said a group of investors is putting together a corporation that may be able to make an offer on the plant. He said he couldn’t name them. “Some of the entities we’re talking to have sufficient capital to do this,” King said.

Restarting the mill doesn’t seem likely given the global demand for linerboard, which led to the closure in the first place. The mill was also a biomass plant, and that is another option.

The community of Ontonagon has a group of financial investors willing to help the community buy and reopen the mill.

Debbie Dix, an Ontonagon resident who has spearheaded an effort to purchase the plant and restore the 200 jobs lost in the town of 2,000, said she has called state representatives in Michigan and Illinois, asking them encourage Smurfit-Stone to broker a fair deal.

Smurfit-Stone has said it hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in the spring.