Billionaire Ronald W. Burkle and a Canadian investment group emerged Friday as players in the forthcoming sale of Philadelphia Newspapers L.L.C., the parent company of The Inquirer.

Stern Partners Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, was one of three bidders to make an offer for the company by the 5 p.m. deadline. Burkle, sources said, has committed funds to help a group of local investors, who also submitted a bid.

The third bid came from a coalition of the company's senior lenders, who are seeking to recoup as much of their $318 million debt as they can.

The involvement of Burkle came after he was contacted by Gov. Rendell at the request of Brian P. Tierney, the chief executive officer of the newspaper company, according to sources.

The local investor group includes William A. Graham, chief executive officer of Graham Co., a Philadelphia regional insurance broker; the Carpenters Union pension fund; and the philanthropist David Haas. Bruce Toll, vice chairman of homebuilder Toll Bros. Inc., is also said to be part of the group, but at a lower stake than he previously promised.

The three bids are now in the hands of the media company, which also owns the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Company officers and their attorneys will evaluate them over the weekend to determine the "highest and best" offer at that point to serve as the floor for the auction. The auction will use the same "highest and best" standard to determine a winner Tuesday.

The company declined to provide any information about the bids other than saying there had been more than one.

Sources involved in the matter, however, confirmed the three bids and Burkle's commitment to the local investment group.

Stern Partners owns a controlling interest in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Brandon Sun, both in Manitoba, and seven community newspapers. It also owns two paper mills, a packaging firm, an apparel-maker, and a garden-products company, according to its Web site.

Ronald N. Stern, founder of the company, was among a Stern contingent that visited Philadelphia in January with an eye toward joining the bidding. Stern did not return a call for comment.

Burkle, through his Yucaipa Cos. L.L.C., a California-based holding company, was a late and an unexpected addition to the local investors who announced their intentions to try to buy the bankrupt company last summer.

A source familiar with the matter said the local investors still have an option to continue without Burkle's help if they conclude they have enough funds to purchase the company without him.

While Yucaipa had been among the firms that have reviewed Philadelphia Newspapers' finances as a prelude to bidding, it was assumed the holding company was considering its own bid - independent of the local investors.

Its decision to throw in with the local investors suggests that the group will offer a serious challenge to take control of the company.

According to sources, Burkle agreed to join the group after the intervention of Rendell, who reached out to Burkle on Thursday at the request of Tierney.

Burkle, who made a fortune buying and selling supermarket chains, has long had an interest in the company. He was one of its suitors four years ago before it was sold to a group led by Tierney. He is a former confidant of President Bill Clinton and a major donor to the Democratic Party.

Tierney and Rendell declined to discuss how Burkle came to be part of the investment group.

Frank Quintera, a principal with Yucaipa, said he could neither confirm nor deny Yucaipa's interest in the company.

On Thursday, Graham said the local group intended to submit a bid that would be similar to one that had been on the table but was withdrawn this week.

That bid offered $35 million in cash and a $17 million letter of credit for all of the company's assets except for its North Broad Street headquarters building.

The senior lenders, holders of the company's largest debt, had previously said through their attorneys that they intended to make a "robust cash bid" for the company.

Those creditors are Angelo, Gordon & Co., the CIT Syndicated Loan Group, Credit Suisse, Eaton Vance Management, General Electric Capital Corp. Inc., Halbis Distressed Opportunities Master Fund Ltd., McDonnell Investment Management L.L.C., and Venor Capital Master Fund L.L.C.

It was unclear if all of those lenders took part in the bid for the company. Fred S. Hodara, the lead attorney for the senior lenders, declined to discuss the lenders' bid in detail.

"It is a clean, all-cash bid that is significantly more valuable than the bid that was formerly known as the 'stalking horse,' " he said, referring to the local group's initial offering.

The bids were submitted to the company's financial adviser, Sonenshine Partners in New York City.

The company will review the bids in consultation with two sales monitors: retired federal Judge Arlin M. Adams and J. Scott Victor, an investment banker who specializes in distressed-debt situations.

The auction is to be held at the New York offices of Proskauer Rose, one of the company's two law firms.

The auction is central to the company's reorganization plan to emerge from bankruptcy. Money raised will go to the senior lenders to settle their debt.

The winner of the auction will still need to have the sale approved by Chief Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Raslavich at a confirmation hearing May 25.

Contact staff writer Christopher K. Hepp at 215-854-2208 or chepp@phillynews.com.