GREAT FALLS -- Great Falls leaders don't know if they can stop a Virginia businessman from converting a downtown mill into a plastics recycling company. But they're certainly trying.
The town hired an attorney this week to help stop Don Saulsgiver from buying the Republic Mill No. 2.
Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes said town leaders chose Chester lawyer Arthur Gaston Wednesday to represent the town in the matter.
"He's got to go see what can be done," said Starnes, who noted that town leaders don't yet know what legal options they have. Gaston couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
The attorney who usually advises the town could not represent it in this matter because he works for the same firm as the lawyer who represents the county's Forfeited Land Commission, which controls the mill.
Jack Kindle, county treasurer and FLC chairman, said a 2006 contract between the commission and Saulsgiver obligates the commission to sell the old mill to him.
Hotel, senior center pitched
But town and county leaders want the commission to sell the site to Bob and Nancy Harllee, who hope to build a hotel and senior living center in the mill.
The Harllees, who first expressed an interest in the property earlier this year, contend the commission doesn't have a binding agreement with Saulsgiver because no money has been exchanged for the property.
The Harllees' project involves nearly $20 million. Saulsgiver has proposed spending about $2 million on his venture.
Many local leaders believe the Harllees' project could revitalize a town that hasn't economically recovered from losing its major textile mills.
"I support 'em," Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant said of Great Falls hiring a lawyer. "I've been bulldogging this thing since the day I met the Saulsgivers."
Questions about Saulsgiver grew after county officials saw the report of a private investigator who was hired by a Chester businesswoman opposed to him getting the mill.
The investigator tracked the criminal and financial records of Saulsgiver and his brother Jay. Both brothers have filed for bankruptcy in the past, according to the investigator's report. Jay Saulsgiver was sentenced to a year in federal prison in 1994, after a conviction for making false claims to the government, the report states.
Despite the findings and the possibility of legal action, Kindle said the commission's position hasn't changed. But he said the town hiring an attorney isn't a bad move.
"To be honest with you, I think there might even be some options for them," he said. "So maybe it's good (for town leaders) to get their heads together and talk to Arthur and see."
New issues in the mill debate seem to emerge frequently, Kindle said.
"You ever play pinball?" he asked. "Well, that's kind of what this situation's like. Every time it runs up against something, it bounces off in a different direction."