Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler says the best solution to the looming shutdown of the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport might be for the state to purchase the mill’s power plant.

At a news conference Monday at his Portland office, Cutler said he’s not confident that a buyer will emerge for the mill, given the industry’s rapid decline, but he said the mill still has assets and potential.

“As we look to the future in Bucksport – as well as in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Old Town – we can no longer think of these facilities, the towns in which they are located and the skilled employees that work in them as just paper mills and hope that someone will come along and magically return them to their 20th century glory,” he said.

Cutler said if a buyer does not emerge soon, the state should make an offer to Verso for its oil, natural gas and biomass-fired turbines.

He said, as governor, he would create a Maine Energy Finance Authority that would use state-backed bonds to buy major energy producers, like the Verso energy plant, and use the generated electricity to bring down costs for businesses in the region and to help attract new business. The Verso plant produces more electricity each year than the 150,000 customers of Bangor Hydro consume.

Cutler predicted that the purchase price for the energy plant would be $75 million to $100 million and said the state would borrow the money against future revenue from the sale of generated electricity.

“I believe that the low-cost electricity, steam and process heat that the mill’s power plant provides can be a major draw for new manufacturing jobs,” he said.

Of the more than 500 people employed by Verso in Bucksport, about 70 work in the power-producing department.

Whether or not Verso would be interested in selling its power plant, the only part of its business that makes money, is unclear.

Cutler said he wrote a letter to Verso CEO David Paterson about his proposal and talked to him on the phone Monday as well.

“I would say that Paterson was taken aback, I think he was a bit startled,” Cutler said of his phone conversation. “I think I understand his points and he understood mine and we’ll see what they do.”

Efforts to reach Paterson for comment Monday were not successful.

Tony Buxton, an energy attorney with Preti Flaherty whose firm has represented Verso, said Cutler deserves credit for “proposing a new concept.”

“But it needs more detail before it can be fully evaluated,” he said.

Cutler spent most of Monday talking about his specific plan, but he did take a parting shot at his two opponents, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

“As governor, I will have failed miserably if a company like Verso shuts down a facility like the Bucksport mill and my only response is that I was surprised or that I plan to hold a summit,” he said.

The surprise comment referred to LePage, who acknowledged last week that Verso’s announcement caught him off guard.

Alex Willette, spokesman for LePage’s re-election campaign, said Cutler should not be using Verso’s employees as “political pawns.”

“Governor LePage and his administration have been working day and night to ensure the employees that are affected by the impending closure are connected with the Department of Labor’s rapid response unit to help find new employment opportunities, and ensure they are taken care of during this time of uncertainty,” he said.

Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s spokeswoman, also offered a pointed response to Cutler’s proposal.

“U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has proposed a real plan to help Maine’s manufacturing sector,” she said, referring to a six-point plan Michaud released last week that included working with other states to address energy costs and better oversight of which companies get tax breaks and incentives. “Candidate Eliot Cutler has written a letter.”

Neither Michaud’s nor LePage’s campaign offered an opinion on the substance of Cutler’s proposal.

The announced closure of the Bucksport mill, combined with last month’s bankruptcy filing by Great Northern Paper Co., is likely to give all three candidates for governor a specific point of economic reference in advance of the first debates of the race.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the three candidates will appear together at debates sponsored by the Portland Chamber and Mid-Maine Chamber, respectively.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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