Both government and private officials mum on prospects for sale of former newsprint plant

GARY ALLEN - The former newsprint mill in Newberg has been closed since Westrock, the Georgia-based paper and packaging giant, purchased the facility in fall 2015.

It sits wedged between Wynooski Road, the bypass and the Willamette River, a silent giant that for more than a century had been the heart of Newberg.

Gone is the constant hum of the giant papermaking machines, steam emitting from boilers, soot from towering smokestacks … and the more than 200 jobs that helped fuel the economy of a growing city.

The newsprint mill was permanently closed in January 2016 after being idled three months prior. It was purchased from previous owner SP Fiber Tech in fall 2015 by Westrock, the Georgia-based paper and packaging giant, in a $288.5 million deal that yielded a second mill in Georgia.

Despite initial assurances from company officials that the mill would be renovated to produce products other than newsprint, giving hope to workers and their families that the jobs would remain, an internal company memo revealed that the company never intended to continue to keep the Newberg mill running.

Soon after its closure the roughly 218-acre mill site went up for sale. The site includes a number of parcels, including more than half of the popular boat landing Roger's Landing, a large section of land east of Dog Ridge Road and land that snakes beneath the bypass northwest toward the city and a railroad siding to boot. Much of the land sits adjacent to Newberg's city limits, while other small sections are within the city.

The land has been listed with the Portland office of Colliers International, a real estate services agency, and marketed as an industrial site, although a flyer from the firm states "the potential exists for annexing additional land into the City of Newberg and rezoning the city portion of the site for other uses."

And what kind of cash would be required to purchase a swath of land of this size? The answer is akin to a used car dealer exclaiming "Make us an offer!"

"We do not have an asking price," Paul Breuer, senior vice president for the Portland office of Colliers International, said in February. "Yes, we do have some continued interest in the property, but I am not in a position to offer you any names or details."

Responses from city officials were much the same.

"When I get inquiries about the mill site I send them to Colliers …," said Doug Rux, the city's community development director.

Newberg Mayor Bob Andrews commented he also hadn't heard of any movement on the sale of the land.

Although Yamhill County continues to tax the land on which the mill sits, the figure is a fraction of what flowed into city and county coffers when the plant was producing newsprint.

Prior to the Westrock purchase, SP Fiber Tech. was the largest taxpayer to the Newberg School District, paying $274,736 on about $37 million of taxable income in 2015. It also doled out about $15,000 in taxes to the Portland Community College district that year. Overall between the school district, PCC district, city of Newberg and Yamhill County tax districts the company was levied about $430,000 in taxes in 2015.

When the mill closed city officials initiated the complicated process of evaluating the property and determining its possible future uses. In 2002, the city had completed a "riverfront master plan" that laid out a vision for development along the Willamette River bluff.

It's complicated not only due to the size of the property, but also because of the many state agencies that were involved with permitting and regulatory activity at the mill over the years.

Some of that complication was eased when the project attracted the attention of a state-level group, Regional Solutions.

The mill issue first came to the attention of the Regional Solutions group when it became clear that along with closing its doors, the mill would also not accept scrap wood for burning as hog fuel anymore. That meant the closure of the only destination for that wood in the entire region. Wood waste from the Portland metropolitan area began going directly into landfills after the mill closed, as regional government agency Metro struggled to find an alternative disposal method.

Perhaps holding up the sale of the property may lie beneath the ancient facility. Industry of the era when the mill was first constructed typically dumped all manner of substances around their facilities. Clean-ups at sites around Newberg, including that of the Butler property across First Street from city hall, found the ground contaminated with myriad petroleum products. The Butler property formerly held an auto repair shop, auto sales lot and other businesses. It was sold for $1 to the city, who secured a $600,000 grant from the federal government to clean up the site.

Former Westrock workers reported after the closure that leakage from old electrical transformers was regularly collected in metal buckets and disposed of. Transformers of that era typically used PCBs, a known carcinogen.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for assessing the environmental health of industrial lands in the state. A check of the department's environmental clean-up site and underground storage tank databases on Monday, showed no activity at the Westrock site.

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