EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

January 28, 2014

Editorial: City dropped the ball on mill site

The fire that destroyed the former Merrimac Paper Co. mill was, as reporter Keith Eddings described it, a disaster a decade in the making.

The only redeeming aspect of this debacle: no one was killed or seriously injured in the Jan. 13 inferno.

That decade is a story of inactivity on the part of both developers and government officials while the property slowly decayed and began to attract vagrants and the homeless. For years, city and state officials allowed tax bills and environmental violations to pile up while taking little to no effective enforcement action. Its would-be developer sought tax breaks but, according to city officials never submitted any substantive plans for the site’s development.

And now, the city of Lawrence may get stuck with the bill to clean up the charred remnants of the once-proud paper mill.

Merrimac Paper once employed 275 people and made 125 tons of high-quality paper a week for clients such as National Geographic magazine. The company managed to hang on longer than most other manufacturers in the city before finally closing and declaring bankruptcy in 2005, with the tax and utility debt to the city just one of more than 300 creditors’ claims.

By 2006, the debt owed Lawrence totaled $3.3 million.

A Haverhill company run by developers Stephen Stapinski of Andover and King Weinstein of Maine purchased the property in 2005 at a bankruptcy auction for $82,500. Stapinski said his plans for the site included restaurants and more than 100 apartments. Stapinski said the city had promised to suspend efforts to collect the tax debt until the property was developed.

“This story is not about me,” Stapinski told Eddings. “It’s about the current owner, about Merrimac Paper closing. The story is about the city not wanting and not allowing the property to be developed.”

The property languished over two mayoral administrations, from former mayor Michael Sullivan into that of William Lantigua.

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