The Kalispel Tribe of Indians has officially submitted a bid to purchase the shuttered Ponderay Newsprint Co. in Usk, which ceased operations in June and eliminated about 130 jobs.
Tribal vice chair Curt Holmes said the tribe had its chief financial officer review all the possibilities for the plant and its 900 acres, and the primary goal is to reopen the paper mill and restore the jobs that were so vital for the community’s survival.
“I live up on the reservation,” Holmes said. “It’s hard to find economic development opportunities that work up there. My dream is that my kids and other kids, if they choose to stay, can still have meaningful employment up there.”
Holmes did not disclose the amount of the bid, but it’s one of several that have been submitted as part of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filed by its owners. The plant is jointly owned by Lake Superior Forest Products, a subsidiary of Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products, and five major U.S. publishers, according to its website.
The owners group filed for bankruptcy June 26 and listed its assets, including property, equipment and bank accounts, at about $79 million and its liabilities, or money owed to creditors, at just less than 58 million, according to court records.
John Munding, the Chapter 7 trustee, confirmed that the Kalispel Tribe submitted a bid Tuesday that has not yet been entered into the court record.
“It’s being considered and evaluated,” Munding said of the bid. “We are also in discussions with other interested parties throughout the country.”
A skeleton crew of eight or 10 employee is still working at the plant, he said.
“We are basically operating it as a business even though it’s in liquidation,” Munding said. That’s being done “to preserve the equipment and protect the environment. Our primary concern is the environment.”
Since bids are being solicited, they will be evaluated and parties will be allowed to make counteroffers, he said. Munding expects that process will take 30 to 60 days.
“Ultimately, it will be the court’s decision about what is in the best interest” of those involved, Munding said.
Holmes said he believes the tribe is uniquely situated to make the best decision for the plant, which started making newsprint, or large rolls of paper used by publications, in 1989. He noted that 12 cultural sites were identified on the property that encompasses the plant.
“Honestly, I would bet money that no outside entity could match the tribe’s commitment to doing what is best for the community,” Holmes said. “Businesses come and go, but we are going to be here forever.”
Discussion of a possible investment would not have been possible without the revenue generated by Northern Quest Resort & Casino, which the tribe opened on Dec. 28, 2000, in Airway Heights.
The coronavirus pandemic “showed us that we need to diversify our economy,” Holmes said. “We are heavy into the hospitality business. But the shutdown has really impacted us financially.”
But in the end, he hopes the tribe can add another economic driver near its reservation headquarters in Usk.
“A lot of times, you see outside corporations come in for about 10 years and then they leave,” he said. “We think this is a generational opportunity for the community to control its own destiny.”
Up until it closed, the paper mill had been supplying newsprint for publications in the Midwest, on the West Coast and in Asia and South America.
“We’ve been told the paper industry is shrinking every year because everything is going digital. But, we still believe there is a market,” Holmes said.
As for other uses of the plant, Holmes said, tribal leaders have kicked around everything from producing wood pellets for stoves to brown packaging to take advantage of the new Amazon fulfillment center in Airway Heights.
“I would say there are a lot of options,” he said. “But our first inclination would be to fire it back up and bring those local guys back to work who lost their jobs.”
Holmes said he went to high school with many of the workers who were laid off in the middle of a pandemic.
“They are kind of scared right now, not knowing what to do next,” he said. “We don’t know how many (companies) are bidding or how high the bidding will go. We are welcoming outreach by anyone interested in exploring partnership opportunities.”
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