‘A lot of people are going to have to leave’: Mill shutdown prompts fears of exodus

Posted April 08, 2011, at 9:41 p.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — A cord of softwood cost $135 when 26-year-old logger Paul York finished work on Thursday. Once word got around Friday that the Main Street paper mill was shutting down indefinitely, the price fell to $87.50, he said.

It was, York said, the first sign of how difficult his life could become without a paper mill to rely on, and he knows his difficulties won’t end there.

“You can’t make any money selling to paper mills at that rate,” the Medway man said. “We’re going to have to go full bore on selling firewood, and there’s already a lot of people around here doing that.”

For York, as for many people in northern Penobscot County, the apparent shutdown of the last Katahdin region paper mill was inconceivable and inevitable.

It has been an economic staple for generations — York said his great-great-grandfather Clarence McLaughlin was among the paper mill’s very first workers — and yet it also has been apparent for years that the Katahdin mills were edging toward the end of the downward arc other mills began tracing 40 years ago as electronic media and international competition began crushing their profitability.

Over the last 20 years, the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills have gone from employing several thousand workers to, with Friday’s closure, 450. The region’s population also has shrunk. Katahdin’s largest town, Millinocket, had nearly 10,000 people a decade ago. Now it has about half that, town officials say.

With a largely undiversified economy — the East Millinocket paper mill is among the region’s largest employers — and with both mills due for massive property tax depreciations effective July 1, it’s difficult to find a facet of the region that won’t be affected by the apparent failure of a San Francisco investment firm’s attempt to revitalize the mills.

“There’s nothing people are going to have to do around here for work,” said Laurie York, an East Millinocket resident unrelated to Paul York. “A lot of people are going to have to leave.”

East Millinocket and Millinocket town governments are planning for layoffs and a vast reduction of services. East Millinocket school leaders already have voted to close one school, though the towns’ leaders believe state aid will cushion some of the shock.

Yet some are optimistic. Napa Auto Parts store owner Glenda Shorey said she believes that the mills are assets simply too valuable to be left to die.

“I believe there is somebody else out there who can make a go of them,” Shorey said. “You have to stay optimistic.”

She and Soup to Nuts restaurant owner Paul Van Loon said they see their businesses taking a hit with the mill closure, but surviving. Millworkers represent no more than 30 percent of his clientele, Van Loon said, while the last time the East Millinocket mill shut down, for a brief time in 2008, sales at her store increased as unemployed workers repaired their vehicles instead of buying new, Shorey said.

East Millinocket millworker Dennis Seamans, 59, expressed a grim satisfaction with Meriturn Partners’ withdrawal from its attempt to buy the mills. He thought the San Francisco investors’ conditions for starting the mill, which included $2-an-hour worker pay cuts and steep property tax breaks, were “totally ridiculous.”

People blame unions for the mills’ demise, but the unions took many pay cuts and lost many benefits through the years to keep the mills going. “Every time they wanted something,” he said, “I voted no, and [with the concessions] we got weaker and weaker as we went along.”

“I think we should buy the mills ourselves and run them,” Seamans said. “We had a chance to do it in 1999 and we let it go by.”

Seamans and his wife, Susan, plan to move to South Carolina to help their son rebuild and sell houses — if they can sell their own. With the region’s housing market already depressed, it will be difficult to find a buyer or break even on the price.

“I can’t work around here as a handyman,” Dennis Seamans said. “We already have too many of those as it is.”

“There is a lot of skill in this area, and people ought to think about what they have,” he added. “They have great capabilities and talents. They can go somewhere else and do something else. I’m going to.”

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