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Thu February 23, 2012
Can A $700,000 Bet Bring A New Industry To The North Country?
It’s been a little more than four years since the Groveton paper mill closed.
But in a calculated gamble that will cost about $700,000 some people have refused to give up on it.
They’re chasing the idea of a new and far different life for the Groveton facility and the North Country.
NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports.
Roger Caron started working at the Groveton paper plant in 1972.
Now he’s the last man there.
Sound of footsteps and Caron saying there aren’t many lights on….
He was hired by Groveton Acquisitions LLC which owns the 107-acre site.
“Basically right now I am taking care of the infrastructure of the building.”
This is not a small task.
“It is 500,000 square feet, so it is close to a 12-acre building.”
The rooms are empty and mostly dark.
The machinery is gone. One piece went to Vietnam.
There are only a few hints of its former life.
One is a board with the names of the people who in 1999 set a record on the #5 paper machine.
Caron couldn’t bring himself to take the sign down.
“Right now it is a little depressing to see the building empty and not see the life that it had. It ran 24 hours a day. It hardly ever stopped.”
He’s hoping somebody will pump new life into the facility.
He shares that hope with others, including Pat Garvin. She works at the North Country Council offices in Bethlehem.
Garvin had just joined the regional planning group when in 2008 she got the assignment to try and find a new use for the Groveton plant.
“We really wanted to look at what was the highest and best use of the site.”
By the end of this year the North Council Council will have spent almost $700,000 - primarily in federal funds with some help from grants – on the project.
Part of the expense was to investigate environmental issues.
Some problems were found but the conclusion was that for an industrial site it was “relatively clean.”
“Developers are frightened by what they don’t know so what we tried to show them is there weren’t unknowns here that they needed to be frightened of.”
Then the Center for Brownfield Studies at the State University of New York was hired to come up with an economic plan.
In a July 2010 report it concluded “the greatest asset that Groveton has for manufacturing is its abundant energy.”
That included wood fiber, bio fuels, natural gas, wind, solar and hydroelectric.
It noted other studies are predicting an increasing demand for food that is local, healthy and grown in an environmentally friendly way.
It linked those two things, suggesting “controlled environment agriculture.”
In short the facility would grow foods – mostly inside - and sell in the Northeast.
Garvin says they’ve would also like it to house businesses working with clean technologies and sustainable forestry.
“It really has the potential to transform the economy into the next hundred, two hundred years just the way paper did in the last hundred years.”
The catch is that so far there have been no investors.
The Groveton facility is still on the market.
Garvin says something like this will take time.
“It is really a blueprint for the future. The standard line, if you will, in developing a brownfield site is it frequently takes seven to ten years to fully develop.”
She insists it is too early to get pessimistic.
Among other things the Department of Resources and Economic Development is looking for investors.
George Bald is the commissioner at DRED.
“Again, I’m convinced there is a good company out there that will make a difference for the Groveton area and provide good jobs but we have just got to be persistent and not lose our patience.”
But an official with Groveton Acquisitions, the owner of the facility, said recently it may be forced to tear down the plant and sell it for scrap if no buyer is found soon.
That would mean the money and effort that went into the project would be chalked up to good intentions and high hopes and keeping consultants employed.
“Well, you know we certainly can’t tell the private sector what to do. But I think the private sector is pretty smart and they see there is some real opportunity here.”
Meanwhile back in Groveton Roger Caron says he walks five or six miles some days.
Checking things out.
Fixing things up.
Hoping that one day there will be new investment and he’ll have lots of company.
For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen