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Olson: Potential owner found for Ainsworth plant

The potential sale of the Ainsworth Lumber Co. plant in Bemidji was announced Monday by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

Negotiations have been ongoing with a Vancouver, British Columbia, broker to sell the plant, which now seems close.

The talks are stalled, however, at present while the Ainsworth management group determines a fair market value for the assets. Earlier this year, Ainsworth announced the permanent closure of the wood products plant after ending 150 jobs last fall.

"I encourage you to continue negotiating and to consider any options that might lead to a mutually agreeable outcome," Olson states in a letter Monday to Ainsworth President and CEO Richard Huff and Ainsworth's board of directors.

In the letter, Olson reveals she has been involved in several meetings related to the possible sale of the Bemidji oriented-strand board plant "to a group of investors represented by Vancouver engineer Terry McSweeney.

When Huff was at the State Capitol in April, "we briefly discussed the status of the negotiations with Mr. McSweeney," Olson writes. "At that time, I was hopeful all parties involved would be able to work out an agreement that would lead to the reopening of the Bemidji plant this summer, restoring over 100 direct jobs in this industry and many more indirect jobs."

In the letter, Olson acknowledges Ainsworth's efforts to market the facility to a new owner, but "I am somewhat concerned, however, about some of the proposed new uses for this plant; while I am a strong supporter of 'green' jobs represented by the use of forestry byproducts for making briquettes, or other innovative uses of materials previously unused, my understanding is that these are secondary uses that rely on the presence of a healthy primary forest products industry."

Returning the Ainsworth plant to its former use making OSB will restore jobs to families that have relied on logging for generations, Olson wrote. They are "loggers who have the experience and equipment to provide the materials our economy will demand as it improves, while helping our state and local governments manage our timber resources."

Olson said that the community "will work with any new owner to encourage the use of 'green' technology and the development of new products compatible with the logging industry."

Before the economic downturn, the Ainsworth OSB plant in Bemidji was one of the most efficient and well-run plants of its kind, the Bemidji Democrat wrote. Olson said she understands that any sale will be affected by uncertainties in the housing market and the need for considerable new investment to make the plant more profitable.

"Mr. McSweeney has indicated he represents a group of investors willing to take this risk and make this additional investment," Olson wrote. She adds that meetings have been held with state Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy to explore federal, state and local financial assistance.

Olson and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, authored bill that would force Ainsworth to keep its plant "salable" for up to two years for a new owner, but the company voluntarily said it would do so.

"I understand Ainsworth has agreed to maintain the plant in saleable condition, which also should help encourage negotiations," Olson wrote.

To move the matter forward, Olson suggests that a professional mediator be retained, should it be required.

"I will be happy to assist you in any way possible to ensure a deal is reached," Olson wrote, adding that she wants to assist with mediation "or any other possible negotiation that would lead to the restoration of the logging jobs lost in the Bemidji area."