Afterlife: Tentative mill deal provides a peek at what could be next

Afterlife: Tentative mill deal provides a peek at what could be next File photo

On May 24, 2023, Canton Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull sat on a bench in Sorrels Street Park, waiting to hear the shrill shriek of the steam whistle at Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill at the heart of town blow for the last time. 

For generations, that whistle blew morning, noon and night, summoning workers to their posts or sending them home to their families. Mull had retired from decades of service at the mill and said she’d heard that whistle blow nearly every day of her life. This past year has offered her, and the people of Canton, only silence.

“You get to where you don’t even expect it after you’ve heard it and heard it,” Mull said. “It’s just like a sore that heals.”

A surprise announcement by Pactiv last week about a prospective buyer could be another step in that healing process, but it’s also reopened old wounds inflicted by the company after its shock March 2023 announcement that the mill would close.

With cautious optimism as a salve and the bitter memory of being burned before still smoldering beneath the surface, there’s no guarantee the St. Louis-based demolition and development contractor Spirtas Worldwide will ever control the site, or what the site’s future really looks like. But at least it’s something.

“It seemed like not knowing was worse than knowing something,” Mull said. “We hope we live long enough to see something made out of it. The past year, that was in doubt. I didn’t see a future for it. Now, this company has a solid record, and I’m hopeful.”

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That descriptions of the mill’s closing have repeatedly been cloaked in religious terms — Mayor Zeb Smathers compared it to a death in the family and spoke of grief, anger and acceptance — should come as no surprise in this deeply religious small mountain mill town; after Pactiv’s May 15 announcement that it had signed a letter of intent from Spirtas Worldwide was confirmed by Smathers, the town was finally given a glimpse at the afterlife. 

“Some religions, they have heaven and hell and purgatory,” Smathers said. “Our people and our government and our economy have been stuck in purgatory with Evergreen for many, many months.”

Shortly after Pactiv’s March 6, 2023, announcement that the mill would close in three months, local officials began closed-door negotiations with the company over the fate of the 185-acre parcel.

The town sought a say — the final say — in what would happen to the sprawling parcel straddling the rapidly recovering Pigeon River, but as those negotiations bore more frustration than fruit, a host of short-, mid- and long-term problems began to arise.

There’s a particular sense of immediacy surrounding the town’s municipal budget, which must be passed by July 1. Officials project a $1.4 million hole against an all-funds budget of around $12 million due to declining revenues and a pending appeal by Pactiv of its property tax bill. Substantial appropriations by the North Carolina General Assembly will help to bridge that gap, but without regaining self-sufficiency soon, Canton’s decline would be slow and painful.

“Yesterday’s announcement did nothing to fix the million dollar or more hole in our budget,” Smathers said May 16. “It did not create any jobs, but the expectation is this will lead not just to economic regrowth on the mill site but I think [it] sends a signal to people across the region, if not farther, about what the future of the mill site is.”

Smathers told The Smoky Mountain News he believes other entities looking to bring jobs and economic development to the Canton area have opted to wait out the uncertainty at the mill site before moving forward, but they may have to hold off a little longer.

On March 9, 2025, Pactiv will cut off wastewater treatment to the town, thereby fulfilling the terms of a 1964 agreement to continue providing the service for two years after a shutdown — if an agreement can’t be reached before then.

Another substantial appropriation from the General Assembly will help pay for a new wastewater treatment plant under the town’s control, but a site hasn’t yet been located. Even if it had been, the town would have had to break ground sometime around 2017 to complete what’s thought to be a five- to seven-year permitting and construction process to get the plant up and running before the impending shutdown.

“Every day, we grow closer and closer to that March deadline,” Smathers said.

The terms of Spirtas’ letter of intent aren’t public because it’s a private transaction between two entities; details are scarce, but Smathers has said he believes there’s a 60-day due diligence period during which Spirtas and Pactiv must come to terms on a sale. If that happens, Spirtas will decide what happens to wastewater treatment. If it doesn’t, the terms of Pactiv’s wastewater treatment service will remain in force.

“As soon as the announcement was made, I received a text from [Spirtas Worldwide president and CEO] Eric Spirtas,” said Smathers. “He is fully aware of the issue and the price tags. As we speak, our town administration is discussing that and other issues with Spirtas. We expect some resolution. We have to have some resolution.” 

When Eric Spirtas spoke with SMN on May 15, he said he was aware of the situation and that it would be “town and county first in those types of decisions.”

Spirtas’ company appears well-positioned to handle the multiple challenges on the site, if and when it finally executes a purchase agreement and takes control of the site.

Per the company’s website, Spirtas Worldwide and its affiliated entities can be a turnkey solution — for decommissioning, demolition or repurposing, landfill operations, remediation, real estate development and tenant acquisition all the way up to property management — or it can provide those services on an à la carte basis.

Recent projects include demolition work on the David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the iconic six-story, 121-year-old Imperial Brewing Company in Kansas City. The company’s involvement at the Canton site wouldn’t even be the first time it has dealt with a paper mill. In 2023, an LLC associated with the company’s owner, Eric J. Spirtas, purchased a former paper mill in Lee, Massachusetts.

“Spirtas has extensive experience in industrial redevelopment and environmental cleanup of manufacturing plants and industrial facilities, including multiple former paper mills,” Spirtas told SMN. “We are committed to operating safely and responsibly, and we recognize the site’s importance to the local community. We’ve already met with Town of Canton officials and look forward to a smooth transition as we invest to support the region’s economic development goals.”

As Smathers and other economic development officials in Haywood County continue to engage with Spirtas Worldwide, he’s cognizant that the pivotal choices made in the coming months will have repercussions that reach as far as the sound that old mill whistle once did.

“I think all of us involved in this realize we’re making decisions for something that will last much longer than our lives on this earth — generations,” he said. “And if we do it the correct way, we will not only have sustained economic prosperity, but the ones that come after us will say, ‘Thank God these people did what they did and made the right decisions and worked together.’” 

Pactiv Evergreen spokesperson Beth Kelly failed to respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

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