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Canton paper mill wins incentives from state

By David Mildenberg - Aug 20, 2014 - 5:00:00 pm

The billionaire owner of the Canton paper mill, a bulwark of western North Carolina’s economy for more than a century, got his state aid after lawmakers in Raleigh reversed course in less than 24 hours. Graeme Hart of New Zealand, who bought the mill in 2006 for $500 million and renamed it Evergreen Packaging, sought $12 million over six years to help pay for modernized boilers that burn more natural gas and reduce coal use to meet new federal rules on emissions. The plant provides more than 1,000 jobs with average annual compensation of more than $78,000. A bill enabling incentives was approved today, after another bill, which also included assistance for Evergreen, was defeated yesterday."It's a small insurance policy for a company that has a $100 million annual impact," says state Rep. Nathan Ramsey, a Fairview Republican who voted for the bill.

Champion Fibre and its successor entities ran the mill for decades until selling it for $200 million to an investor group, which included employees, in 1999. Upgrading boilers will cost up to $44 million, which would have no adverse impact on its finances, according to Evergreen’s 2013 annual report. “We’re afraid [Hart’s] going to say, ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ and just shut it down,” says Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Franklin who voted for the bill. Hart, who spent more than $16 billion assembling a packaging empire the past decade and is often called New Zealand’s richest man, may sell as much as $7.9 billion of assets, according to a July government filing. Talk around Canton is that Koch Industries’ Georgia Pacific might buy the plant, former Mayor Pat Smathers says. Evergreen officials didn’t return telephone calls. Georgia-Pacific had no comment. 

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