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Middle Georgia newspapers, companies ordered to repay $2.7 million

Owners of several Middle Georgia newspapers and newspaper companies are appealing a Jones County judge’s ruling July 2 that they must repay more than $2.7 million in loans, fees and penalties for a failed printing enterprise.

Bank of America, which loaned the money, has the option to collect the money from one or multiple defendants, a bank representative confirmed this week.

If the bank tries to collect from any single defendant, “it would be devastating,” said Ward Stone Jr., a Macon attorney representing the group in the lawsuit, filed by the bank last summer.

Defendants in the suit include Publishing Partners LLC and Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative LLC and the companies’ investors:

Smith Communications Inc. and the company’s owner, Angus Mark Smith. Smith also owns The Eatonton Messenger.

Community Voice Media LLC and the company’s owners, Joshua W. Lurie and Deborah L. Smith. Lurie and Smith own the Jones County News. Smith is not related to Mark Smith.

Walter B. Geiger, co-owner of the Herald Gazette in Barnesville.

The Monroe County Reporter Inc. and its owners, Robert M. Williams Jr., Cheryl S. Williams and William P. Davis. The Williamses also own several other small newspapers in Alma, Blackshear, Folkston and McRae.

Middle Georgia Printing Cooperative LLC formed in fall 2010 to lease printing presses owned by The Telegraph to print members’ newspapers and contract to print other publications, Lurie and Mark Smith said in a deposition filed in the court record. Lurie and Smith are managing partners in the venture.

The group later purchased its own printing equipment and set up shop on Industrial Park Drive in south Bibb County.

Employing as many as 15 full-time employees and 30 part-timers, the cooperative became plagued by printing quality issues, Smith said in his deposition, and they began to lose business.

On April 28, 2014, the cooperative closed its doors with plans to reopen in 90 days.

“We had a choice -- either pay employees, buy newsprint or pay Bank of America,” Smith said. “We couldn’t do all three.”

A lawyer representing Bank of America sent the group a letter about two weeks later, demanding that they repay the balances left on their loans and turn over any bills for money owed to them.

The bank also demanded that collateral for the loans be turned over -- the Industrial Park Drive property, printing presses, furniture, fixtures and other equipment.

‘PUSH US OUT OF BUSINESS’

Stone said his clients are disappointed in the decisions the bank has made in enforcing the loan agreements.

He said he and his clients don’t think the bank is abiding by standards for the “commercially reasonable disposal of collateral” in selling off equipment from the printing operation piece by piece -- some of it for scrap.

In a motion filed last month, Stone argued that the Industrial Park Drive property and equipment should be sold intact -- and at a higher price.

The property is set to be auctioned on the Bibb County Courthouse steps Aug. 4.

Reached by phone this week, Robert Williams said he expects his newspapers -- including The Monroe County Reporter -- “will be fine” and continue publishing.

“Our newspapers have been publishing for decades, some more than a century, and this is not going to stop them,” he said.

Williams said the collaborative had asked the bank for a reprieve of 60 to 90 days when it stopped printing in 2014. Instead, the bank demanded repayment in full.

If the bank had agreed, “we could still be operating today,” he said. “The bank chose to push us out of business.”

Geiger said “it’s an unfortunate situation” and Middle Georgia still needs a local printing facility.

Davis responded to a request for comment by email, saying “obviously the press cooperative didn’t work out as we had hoped. Thankfully the Reporter continues to enjoy the support of our community. We look forward to resolving the press issue and moving forward.”

Messages for Mark Smith, Lurie and Deborah Smith were not returned this week.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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