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Paper mill owners sell equipment

Group that bought Roaring Spring plant auctions papermaking machinery

Dawn Varner of Roaring Spring labels rolls of paper at the former Appvion paper mill on April 27, 2017, seen below. The ownership group that bought the former pulp and paper mill this summer with the intention of marketing the plant as a “turnkey” facility has auctioned off the papermaking equipment. Mirror file photo

ROARING SPRING — The ownership group that bought the former Appvion pulp and paper mill here this summer with the intention of marketing the plant as a “turnkey” facility has auctioned off the papermaking equipment, according to a local business leader.

“Before, they were hopeful they would be able to sell (the mill) as a papermaking operation,” said Steve McKnight, CEO of the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. “Now it looks like that’s not likely.”

It’s a “massive disappointment,” added McKnight, who spoke recently to one of the principals of the ownership group, which consisted of four companies that created a new LLC called Roaring Spring Park.

“We were obviously hoping this ownership group, with its connections in the global marketplace, would have been more successful in finding an operator that (would have left) the plant completely and wholistically in place,” McKnight said.

The plant’s boiler and “pulp-related infrastructure” remain, however, so there still may be an opportunity for a buyer to restart operations to produce an intermediate product — in contrast to the finished paper the mill previously produced, McKnight said, based on his conversation with the principal.

The age and configuration of the plant and its location was apparently not “advantageous” in the attempt to market the facility as a turnkey operation, McKnight said.

A paper mill first opened on the site in 1866.

In recent times, Appvion had invested millions to upgrade the equipment, according to the principal, in a press release during the summer.

The mill is tucked into a section of the small Halter Creek valley next to the borough.

It’s served by a rail line and is located just off Route 36, about 3.5 miles from the Leamersville interchange of I-99.

The group principal to whom McKnight spoke didn’t return a pair of messages from the Mirror on Thursday.

While papermaking is the highest and best use of the property, and a pulping operation could be an acceptable alternative, the plant could also serve as a site for multiple “smaller independent operations,” including distribution and manufacturing, McKnight said.

“Right now, buildings are in high demand,” McKnight said.

The ownership group’s online auction was held Sept. 21-23, with Sept. 15 the deadline for a potential turnkey buyer, according to an online notice.

The plant had an annual yield of 200,000 tons per year, with 150,000 tons per year pulp production, according to the notice.

The mill is on a 330-acre site, with 400,000 square feet under roof, according to the notice.

“Ultra-clear spring water source throughout property,” the notice states.

The plant was “perfect for linerboard,” according to the notice.

The ownership group was at first optimistic that the increased demand for linerboard — the cardboard used for boxes, such as those used for shipping online retail products — would make the plant attractive, according to Bill Firestone, president of Capital Recovery Group, one of the four companies that comprise Roaring Spring Park, when he spoke with the Mirror this summer.

Items for sale in the auction that followed expiration of the turnkey opportunity included “backhoes, bridge cranes, centrifugal pumps, dump trucks, dust collectors, hydraulic balers, paper lines, rolling stock, slitter rewinders and split case pumps.”

Another notice advertised gate valves and ball valves and yet another, electrical components.

On Thursday, trucks of various sizes arrived and departed the plant grounds, evidently to pick up items purchased at auction.

An employee of a security contractor and one connected with ownership declined to talk to the Mirror.

When Appvion closed the plant in the spring, “there was optimism,” Doug Mingle, owner of Roaring Spring True Value, said on Thursday.

Now there’s uncertainty, which is difficult for the community and which is likely to continue until the fate of the mill property is “resolved,” Mingle said.

The borough grew up around the mill, and its closure, while not totally unexpected to some employees, was nevertheless “a blow,” said Mingle, whose father-in-law was a “career mill man.”

For years, the mill provided a variety of jobs that local people aspired to, Mingle said.

“You got in, you’re set,” he said.

That was true for laborers, engineers, electricians, machinists and managers, he said.

It was much like the railroad shops in Altoona, he said.

For years, it’s been hard to keep the community’s young people in place after they grow up, and now it’ll be even harder, Mingle said.

He tends to be an optimist, however, he said.

Maybe, despite the perceived disadvantages of the plant’s configuration and location, potential operators will see the advantages, especially in comparison to problems like drought in other areas, he said.

Those include the plentiful supply of water and the good workforce, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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