SKOWHEGAN — Sappi North America, with paper mills in Skowhegan, South Portland and Westbrook, has received a Champion of Economic Development Award from the Maine Development Foundation.

The award is given to people or organizations that are key to driving Maine’s economy forward, evidenced by Sappi’s continuing commitment to its host communities, business, and the state of Maine, according to a Sappi press release.

“We are deeply honored to be awarded such recognition from the Maine Development Foundation,” Mark Gardner, president and CEO of Sappi North America, said in the release. “Sappi has a deep history as a part of Maine’s pulp and paper industry and our commitment to our surrounding communities is profound.

“The state of Maine has been a good place for us to do business, and we will continue our investment in its people, its economy and our business for many years to come.”

The Maine Development Foundation is a private, nonpartisan membership organization concentrating on sustainable, long-term economic growth for Maine, according to the foundation’s website. The focus is supporting and growing a productive workforce.

Yellow Light Breen, the foundation’s president and CEO, said Sappi is not only a leader in Maine, but the Skowhegan mill is the seventh-largest paper mill in the world.

“Sappi has been on our radar for a while, and certainly it was great to recognize them this year because MDF has gotten more involved than ever before in trying to chart a path to future grown in the forest products industry,” Breen said in an interview Friday. “The path has changed, but what lies over the horizon in terms of what we can make out of wood fiber in the state that will drive our economy.”

Breen said Sappi is making capital investments and is innovating, making it fit the bill for the foundation award. He said there is no cash award associated with the award, just the prestige of being recognized statewide for a job well done.

Sappi North America is a cornerstone of Maine’s paper industry, with its roots as the S.D. Warren Co. more than 160 years ago, according to the company release. Throughout its history, Sappi has overcome industry challenges through its forward-thinking approach to the pulp and paper business, focusing primarily on innovation, the release said, adding that is evident by its recent announcement of the new functional release paper to make bacteria-inhibiting textures.

The Sappi mill in Skowhegan remains open, up and running in a state where other communities have not been so lucky.

The Madison Paper Industries mill was the fifth Maine mill to shut down in a little over two years when it closed this year, and its closure left just six mills operating in the state, including the Skowhegan mill. Once employing more than 18,000 workers at its height in the 1960s, the state’s paper-making industry has lost more than 1,500 jobs in the past two years and 2,300 since 2011.

In Skowhegan, town officials signed an agreement earlier this year with Sappi to cap the value for taxation at the company’s paper mill at $380 million to ensure that the mill remained open, providing jobs and a solid, if somewhat diminished, tax base. It was a compromise solution to save jobs and put an end to disagreements that had dragged on for months and promised to end up in court, officials said.

In exchange, Sappi agreed to withdraw its tax abatement requests against the town for 2014 and 2015. The compromise represents an agreed upon $64 million in reduced value for taxation beginning this fiscal year. Under the agreement, the town will lose about $1.2 million in taxes for fiscal year 2016-17. In the years following, the town assessors will update the property valuation, but not to exceed $380 million in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

No abatement will be sought by Sappi, and there will be no supplemental assessments for taxation by the town, according to the settlement agreement.

The company employs more than 1,300 local people across three locations in Maine. There are about 800 employees at the Somerset mill in Skowhegan, including 170 salaried employees. The hourly workers are represented by four labor unions.

Sappi, with New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., is one of the top two employers in Somerset County. The paper mill also supports more than 75 local organizations and school programs with volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

Sappi is among three other local organizations to receive the Champion of Economic Development award this year. The other award winners are Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, Our Katahdin and Platz Associates.

The 2016 award recipients were recognized Tuesday during the 38th annual meeting of the Maine Development Foundation.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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