Lee mills sold to Midwest company; tenants courted
LEE -- Three vacant paper mills in Lee and Lenox Dale have been sold, and the new owner is already working to land tenants for one of those facilities.
Niagara Worldwide of St. Louis and Niagara, Wis., has purchased the Columbia and Greylock mills in Lee and Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale, according to company President Eric Spirtas. The sale price was not disclosed.
Spirtas said the company is working with town officials, other developers and prospective tenants to figure out the best reuse of the facilities, which were shut down more than six years ago by the previous owner, Schweitzer-Mauduit International.
The Columbia Mill, which dates back to 1826, the Niagara Mill, circa mid-1860s and the Greylock Mill, erected in the mid-1960s are all located in residential neighborhoods. Niagara and Columbia also are situated along the Housatonic River.
The developer believes the Greylock Mill, being the youngest of the three, makes it first out of the chute for reuse.
"Greylock is prime and set up, ready to accept tenants," Spirtas said in a phone interview with The Eagle. "We're talking to two [companies] right now and that would be a home run to lock in those two groups."
Property redevelopment is among Niagara Worldwide's 14 business ventures that include manufacturing, commodities trading, construction services and fuel distribution, according to the company website.
Niagara is currently working on an overall plan for all three mills and intends to seek out public input on their reuse.
The company's resume bodes well for the three mills and the town, according to Lee officials.
"Hopefully this deal means the mill reuse will move forward," said David Bruce, president of the Lee Community Development Corp. "I can foresee us being a resource as we would love to be involved with [Niagara]."
Roger Scheurer, of Lee, a 29-year Schweitzer employee, is thrilled Niagara will be instrumental in the mill reuse.
"We're lucky to have something like this come along ... and hopefully it will lead to decent jobs," said Scheurer, who was Schweitzer's local consultant during the sale negotiations.
In May 2008, Schweitzer-Mauduit closed its Columbia, Greylock, Niagara and Eagle mills, putting nearly 170 people out of work.
Schweitzer-Mauduit sold the Eagle Mill in 2010 to an Albany, N.Y.-area developer who never followed through with formal plans for a mixed reuse of the downtown site.
The current owner of the Eagle Mill has a purchase and sale agreement with Mill Renaissance LLC led by Jeffrey N. Cohen of Great Barrington. Cohen and his development team have vowed a complete build-out of the 6.4 acre parcel that includes workforce housing, a restaurant, retail space and a community center. One of the two proposed scenarios also includes a hotel.
Mill Renaissance is currently working on securing financing, permits and overcoming environmental hurdles for the estimated $70 million revitalization, that the developer expects to complete in four or five years.
The Eagle Mill proposal, coupled with Lee's updated infrastructure, has the town poised for economic growth, according to Spirtas.
"This is a seasoned, developed community with expectations and desires," he said. "I look at [the Eagle Mill project] as a trailblazer to enhance the town."
Last summer, Lee received a $175,000 federal planning grant toward creating a community-based strategy for revitalizing all four former Schweitzer-Mauduit mills. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is overseeing the two-year study that BRPC officials expect will kicked into high gear this spring.
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