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Buyer of Duluth's shuttered Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant revealed

Two Jeff Foster Trucking semis sit by the former Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant (foreground) in Duluth on Monday. The owner of the Superior-based trucking firm has purchased the property just over three years after Georgia-Pacific closed the plant. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
A Jeff Foster Trucking trailer sits on the former Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant property in Duluth on Monday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Jeff Foster’s son Brian (left) and Jeff Foster Trucking COO Leo A. Naumann check Foster’s phone during a break in a Monday news conference at the former Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant. Several Jeff Foster Trucking trucks were parked on the property Monday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Jeff Foster likes the potential of the former Georgia-Pacific complex on Duluth's industrial harborfront so much he bought the place.

Foster revealed Monday that he was the buyer for the sprawling, 19-acre site on Railroad Street that has 350,000 square feet of indoor space.

“The possibilities are endless. It’s an amazing site and I think we’ll see great things there,’’ Foster told the News Tribune.

The former composite board manufacturing plant, which Duluthians often refer to as the Superwood plant, shuttered in 2012.

Foster already is moving in some “warehousing and transportation logistics” segments of his big Superior-based trucking company, Jeff Foster Trucking, which he founded in 1981.

But Foster sees bigger things for the Duluth site thanks to its easy access and visibility from Interstate 35, its rail access and its location on the harbor’s Slip C for barge access.

Georgia-Pacific removed the actual board manufacturing machinery to avoid future competition, but left behind boilers and other equipment that create great potential for future manufacturing, Foster said. The property could be used as an incubator for industrial start-ups, he said, and he plans to work with the city of Duluth and other parties to find businesses interested in using parts of the site.

“It’s got all transportation access. There are massive electrical capabilities … five boilers and natural gas. It’s an amazing property,” he said. Most of it is in good shape, he said, although he said some is in need of “deferred maintenance.”

Foster said he’s already transferred some Superior employees to the Duluth site and may be hiring more workers in the future.

Foster’s plans to keep the site a working industrial facility fit with the city of Duluth’s plans to keep the west portion of the harbor as commercial and industrial even as the eastern portions become gentrified with hotels, shopping and parks. City officials said last month they may be able to find state or federal funds to help clean up some pollution on the site.

The prospects for the idled plant also align with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, which seeks to retain commercial water access in the harbor.

“This is great news for the working waterfront,” Vanta Coda, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told the News Tribune. “Mr. Foster has demonstrated a deep commitment to the manufacturing and transportation sectors of this region’s economy. His purchase of this idled facility provides a springboard for expanding freight-handling opportunities via road, rail and water. The investment of private dollars along the industrial waterfront is critical to the future of our port community.”

Foster purchased another Georgia-Pacific plant, on Superior’s waterfront, in 2003 and has “repurposed” that site for storage and transportation logistics and manufacturing, including a wood pellet manufacturing facility that is now idled as fuel prices plummet. That site also holds harbor access and  was considered for a time to be a dockside oil transfer facility for Superior’s Calumet refinery to ship oil by Great Lakes tanker. Those plans have been dropped.

Foster’s trucking company now has more than 200 semi tractors, more than 600 trailers and more than 260 employees — drivers, mechanics and dispatchers who help move local, regional and national freight.

Foster did not disclose the purchase price for the Duluth site. The deal closed Nov. 12.

Georgia-Pacific closed its Duluth plant in October 2012, putting 141 people out of work. It made a thin hardboard product called Superwood used in the auto industry for interior parts such as visors, door inserts and spare tire covers. Before the plant opened in 1948, the site had been used for a host of other industrial activities.