One year following the closure of the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill, a buyer has submitted a letter of intent to purchase the 115-year old Canton mill site.

Pactiv Evergreen made the announcement on May 15, agreeing to sell the mill site to Spirtas Worldwide. Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Spirtas specializes in demolition, plant decommissioning, and environmental remediation services.

Conversations have been on-going over the past several weeks between local leaders in Canton and Spirtas executives involving the sale and its terms.

Speaking with Carolina Journal, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said he has had a great rapport with Spirtas CEO Eric J. Spirtas since the announcement was made, but also said despite the letter of intent, much due diligence is yet to be done by all stakeholders involved in the deal.

“Spirtas reached out to me directly after the announcement was made,” Smathers said. “It’s likely to be final. Again, I try to caution people, the due diligence is not done yet. At this point I don’t have any belief to realize it’s not, but Eric is just now starting to have conversations with very important people from the EPA, us in Canton, the county, and other consultants. So, we’re in the due diligence period. Eric has been in town over the last several days and has hit the ground running. They’re moving quickly, but in a reasonable manner.”

In a previous interview with ABC 13 news, Spirtas emphasized that his company’s plans for the site are still in the works.

“The Canton mill takes on a large canvas, so there’s a lot of components to it,” he said. “What I would say very clearly is the planning is in process.”

He’s also cognizant of the positive impact the purchase will have on the local economy.

“We look to community and town first, what is best for the community and the town for the area and region,” Spirtas said. “We will work with the main stakeholders in those areas to make sure that we are working locally, we are working regionally, and we are helping to fill the void.”

Smathers told CJ that Spirtas’ acquisition goes beyond the 185-acre site, and could encompass development efforts at the landfill and Haywood County’s Lake Logan dam.

“They have experience and we feel they have resources,” Smathers said. “They are a demolition redevelopment company, so I think there will be some demolition. I think they will be doing what is necessary. Pactiv made it clear to us that the thing that drives them the most is to find a company to hold them harmless from liability or take care of the liability. There’s definitely a re-development side to this and we’ve been very clear that we should and need to play a role in that. I think Eric is very open to that. Local talent at any part of this would be appreciative. I put our workers and employees up, whether it be contractors, clean up, or interested partners to occupy the site.”

Addressing the fallout in Canton from the paper mill closure is also important to Smathers, which he said Spirtas will also have to account for.

“With all due respect to Spirtas, this announcement did not fix the 1.4-million-dollar hole I have in my budget,” said Smathers. “It hasn’t provided any jobs yet. It hasn’t set a new path for western North Carolina. It hasn’t put anybody back to work, but it has the potential to do all those things and more. That’s why I’m cautious we will get there. He’s in due diligence and it’s our job to help him where we can. I think people are hopeful and I think they’re glad to be out of purgatory. Being out of purgatory also triggers some secondary economic development and I think there are people who are willing to invest in and around Canton, but I think they were waiting to see what was going to happen. With the announcement by Spirtas, I think it sent a signal to western N.C. what the future of the property is. Every town wants economic benefit, but we have to have it for survival. There’s no way around it.”

Smathers is also grateful to those who have played a role in Canton’s recovery after the mill ceased operations.  

“I want to commend the elected officials from Haywood, democrats, republicans, and the state leadership,” he said. “It has been very bipartisan. Less than a year before the anniversary of the closing, we were having this conversation about what comes next. It hasn’t been easy. Most places like the mill just sit there. You’re just paralyzed and stunned, so it takes a while to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ve been mourning but also moving at the same time.”

Cautious optimism

CJ also spoke with N.C. House Rep. Mark Pless, whose district includes Canton, about the deal. He has thus far taken a wait and see approach.

“I’m not sure I have any thoughts at the moment,” he said. “I’m just waiting to let it play out. I know that anybody who does business has to weigh responsibility and the different hazards they will be responsible for. When Spirtas starts their due diligence process, and they’re doing that now, I would hope we’d be able to know what their plan is. Right now, I don’t know what their plan is. I’d like to know that before I decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I hope to have a conversation with them over the next few weeks while they’re going through this process and just ask them, ‘What are your ideas and what are you going to do with it?’ I know they’re getting a lot of properties and a lot of other things with it which have nothing to do with the mill. As I learn more information, I may choose to be supportive or non-supportive. Right now, I just don’t know enough to choose either side.”

At the end of the day, it comes down to cautious optimism in Canton and the surrounding region in light of the mill site purchase.

“The buzzword is cautiously optimistic,” said Smathers. “I am cautiously optimistic about everything at this point in and around Spirtas, their company, what they plan to do, personalities, and Eric’s understanding that this is not just another project, this is home. If done correctly and respectfully, it can and should trigger the biggest economic boom In N.C. history, one that could power our economy and redefine our economy in the entire region for the next 25-50 years. They say this is the mill town miracle, I say it’s the mill town moonshot. To try to do something that’s never been done before that embraces everything in the world today which is good, to learn from others’ mistakes, and be authentic.”