The long-anticipated sale of the former WestRock paper mill in Newberg has come to fruition, sources revealed last week. The identity of the buyer and other key aspects of the story, however, will remain a mystery for the time being.
Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla distributed an email last week announcing the sale and introducing the broker responsible for the sale, Philip Higgins of Pacific Crest Real Estate Advisors.
"I am so excited to see what the next chapter brings for the mill site, for Newberg and for Yamhill County," Kulla said. "It is an amazing place and the city of Newberg wisely included the site in (its) newly adopted riverfront master plan. I hope to see the new owners clean and redevelop it in a way that brings new opportunities and new jobs to the city, adds to the vitality of our county, and reconnects residents with the Willamette River."
Kulla said he didn't know the identity of the buyer of the 200-plus acre collection of parcels that sits adjacent to the city's southern border. He also demurred on the sale price, but commented that he believes there is a single buyer.
"The county did not take part in negotiations," he said. "I kept abreast of them at a distance, and I believe the city of Newberg was fully informed."
Doug Rux, city of Newberg community development director, said the city has yet to determine how the sale of the mill will impact the riverfront master plan.
Kulla also pleaded ignorance on the fate of the city's water treatment plant, which sits within the confines of the mill site adjacent to the river, and plans for cleaning up the land that has hosted a mill since the late 1880s.
"It is my understanding that the site will be cleaned and the buildings removed," he said, adding that the state Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for overseeing such efforts.
Higgins verified there is a single buyer, but declined to identify that buyer, the timeline of the sale and the sale price. He confirmed that the mill is to be razed and the tons of steel and aluminum sold for scrap.
Plans for future development of the mill site are yet to be determined. "(It's a) work in progress, lengthy work in progress," Higgins said. "Given the zoning, a job-creating industrial park is what's allowed."
Higgins acknowledged that cleanup of the site, which includes a pair of sewage lagoons, will be extensive and, likely, costly. The new buyer, however, is undeterred.
"We're eager to partner and work with any local, state and federal agency that will assist in facilitating the cleanup of this brownfield site, so that we may turn it into a center for new jobs in Yamhill County," he said.
Idle for many years
The mill has been closed since fall 2015 after Atlanta-based WestRock purchased it in a deal that included a second mill. The company initially said it would make improvements to the facility to make it more viable, but then suddenly shuttered the facility, first laying off its more than 200 workers then firing them outright a few months later.
The mill was listed with Colliers International soon after its closure. The company sought an $8.25 million contract with the caveat that the paper-making machinery inside be destroyed.
The company received at least three sales offers for the facility, including from an Idaho company that wanted to demolish the mill for the scrap metal but later withdrew its offer. Two other paper companies made unsuccessful offers to purchase the plant for undisclosed prices as well.
WestRock took the mill off the market for a short time before relisting it in May 2018 after, company officials said, there was renewed interest in its purchase.
WestRock Senior Vice President and Treasurer John Stakel said then that the company came to believe selling the mill for a possible mixed-use development will provide the best value for WestRock and the city.
"(We) believe there is a great opportunity for a buyer to completely redevelop the property in line with the city's proposed riverfront master plan and for the long-term benefit of local residents," Stakel said.
The move came about after the city had convened a subcommittee to consider asking WestRock to donate a portion of the tract to the city.
"We applaud WestRock's collaboration and partnership in the riverfront master plan process and willingness to look at different options for the site, including possibly donating a small portion of the site, Rogers Landing, for public use," Mayor Rick Rogers said in 2019. "We look forward to working with WestRock and potential buyers as WestRock markets the property. The redevelopment of this important site will be key to the economic revitalization of the riverfront and Newberg."
Not without controversy
Beyond closing the mill suddenly and without notice, WestRock faced criticism for rebuffing efforts to purchase the site, some detractors said, biding its time while its bid to purchase Keystone Paper and Packing Co. was being reviewed by the federal government.
The Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, the union representing most of the discharged workers, filed a complaint in 2018 to the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The AWPPW argued that WestRock's then-pending sale of the Newberg mill to a scrapper was in an effort to undercut its competition. Although the union's effort had the backing of several of Oregon's congressional delegation, the Department of Justice didn't find fault in WestRock's purchase of Keystone.
A vision for the future
The city's riverfront master plan calls for developing a thin tract of land along the bluff that sits between the Newberg-Dundee bypass and the Willamette River into a commercial, residential and recreational zone that abuts the mill property on the east. If the plan, adopted by the city recently after years on the drawing board, wished to include the mill site, then the land would have to rezoned by the county as it is designated for industrial use.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.