Definitive answers are elusive on whether a buyer has been found for the former WestRock newsprint facility

Definitive information on the fate of the Newberg paper mill is sparse, with WestRock officials reluctant to share details of its potential sale, but there appears to be movement on the issue.

"I can only tell you that our site in Newberg is under contract with a buyer," said Chris Augustine, director of corporate communications at WestRock, headquartered in Norcross, Ga.

Augustine recommended further inquiries be directed to Newberg government officials, specifically the mayor and City Council.GRAPHIC FILE PHOTO - The Newberg paper mill was shuttered permanently in January 2016 by WestRock, the Georgia company that purchased it just six months earlier as part of a package with another mill.

Mayor Bob Andrews said he had heard there were "a couple of businesses" that are working in concert to possibly purchase the 220-acre facility, closed permanently in January 2016 after sitting idle for several months. He added that he understood the buyers weren't from the paper industry, but rather that they would be acquiring the property for development by a secondary party.

Paul Breuer, senior vice president of Colliers International, the Portland realty firm handling the sale, cited a confidentiality agreement that doesn't allow him to speak to the potential sale.

"When the time comes I will be happy to share what information I can with you," he said, "but for the moment I need to stay with no comment."

He added, however, there is a difference in saying a buyer is under contract, as Augustine commented, and an actual sale.

Newberg City Council members were either unaware of the details of any potential sale of the facility or guarded in their statements when queried recently.

"There's movement on the subject, but it has not been discussed with the whole council yet," said Councilor Stephen McKinney. "The things that are in motion seem to be doing well, but they're at that critical stage …" that the council should delay any further comment until it's all fleshed out. "We're kind of in that limbo stage right now."

"I haven't been updated on this one," Councilor Scott Essin said. "I knew there was something in line … that they wanted to sell it."

Community Development Director Doug Rux confirmed that WestRock is looking for a buyer for the entire site, buildings included, and that the company has talked with a variety of parties about selling it.

"But, has WestRock told us they've signed a contract? No," he said.

Rux did share some facts and figures about the facility: it consists of 220 acres, 8.6 acres of which are within the city limits. One-hundred-thirty-six acres are within the city's urban growth boundary and 74 acres are outside the UGB. Rux said the county assessed the taxable value of the mill site at $39.9 million in 2015-2016, requiring WestRock to pay $103,000 in property taxes last year. That assessment, he added, continues regardless of whether the mill is operating or not, good news for the districts that receive tax receipts from the mill: the city of Newberg, Portland Community College, Yamhill County, Newberg School District, Chehalem Park and Recreation District and others.

The city is paying particular attention to the future of the site for two primary reasons: the city's water treatment plant sits on two acres surrounded on three sides by the mill; and the parcel is integral to the city's plans for developing the waterfront.

Any sale of the mill site would have to include provisions for the continued operations of the water treatment plant, as relocating the plant would be prohibitively expensive and it has received recent upgrades.

Development of the riverfront has been a goal of the city for many decades, but recent events have officials somewhat optimistic it will soon go forward. The city recently received a grant from the state to update the riverfront master plan, which includes more than 400 acres of land within the UGB, including all of the mill site, Roger's Landing, the city's old dump and other land.

The process to produce an updated riverfront master plan will begin in mid-May or June, Rux said, adding that the hope is that WestRock will have sold the land by that time and the purchaser will be involved in the planning process.

Newberg City Manager Joe Hannan was somewhat more committal in plans for the property. "The city is talking to the new potential buyer, who is going through the process of environmental assessment of the property," he said in an interview following an appearance before the Chehalem Park and Recreation District board of directors in January.

The land in question has been a mill site for more than 125 years, first starting as Spaulding Lumber in the 1880s. Former WestRock employees commented after the mill was closed that it was likely the site would require substantial clean-up of solvents, oils and other materials used over the years, as well as PCBs leaking from electrical transformers.

One now defunct aspect of the former plant also has city officials and their cohorts excited: the possibility of an electrical co-generation facility.

"That part of the plant has already gone, most of that has been dismantled and sold, but what is still there is important and we've asked the broker to the new agent to please don't do anything that would potentially dismantle the large natural gas line that goes in there," Hannan said. "We've asked to do some feasibility about, in the long term, is gas and gas co-generation there still feasible and how might that fit in."

Before the mill closed it was the largest recipient of wood debris in the Portland area, debris which it used to power its steam turbines and generate power to run the plant. The mill's largest customer was Metro, the Portland regional planning council.

"The city has, in talking to the broker as representative of the owner, indicated an interest in seeing the feasibility of cogeneration there," Hannan said. "There's a lot of interest in the state of people who have been saying they were bummed out because that's where they were sending their products."

The future for the former mill site may be unsure, but city officials hope it does include a mix of uses in conjunction with the riverside master plan. Maintaining at least some of the land for industrial use is high on the priority list.

"(The city hopes to) see a significant part of this property in industrial to replace those manufacturing jobs that left," when the mill closed, Hannan said. "We told them that."

The process to basically change the borders of the master plan for the riverfront will begin in a few months when Andrews appoints a citizen committee in conjunction with a group of officials from other organizations such as the park district.

"We would expand that previous study area to include (the mill), which it didn't before, and to account for there's now a bypass running through this master plan area," Hannan said.

The process will be deliberate, he added, as the city recognizes the uniqueness of a vacant industrial site of such large size.

"This property is so unique and valuable in Oregon because it's like there are no sites over 100 acres that are this close to the metro area," Hannan said. "We know this is a very special piece and it's going to set the way we develop and grow and mature for a long time."

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