What would you do to save 450 jobs?
That’s the question that Gov. Paul LePage and members of Maine’s Legislature face in East Millinocket, where a “global asset management” company has made the business decision to abandon its mill, its workers and the community.
Earlier this year, Brookfield Asset Management shutdown the paper mill in East Millinocket, costing 450 workers their jobs. A sister mill in Millinocket was shuttered in 2008, resulting in the loss of another 150 jobs.
Brookfield’s interest in the properties has receded. The company no longer wants to make paper or make investments in their mills. It is content with scrapping the whole operation while hanging onto a valuable hydro-electric project that fed the mills.
The company, using tactics that many of us have seen before, has given the state the chance to broker a deal to reopen the two mills.
But there’s a catch, as there always seems to be. To make a deal attractive, the state needs to take over the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket. The landfill is reaching the end of life, and though Brookfield has tried to position the property as an asset, the truth is that it’s a liability.
The landfill, likely, stands in the way of any deal to find a new operator for the mills.
That leaves the state with few options — none of them good: Take over the landfill and its liabilities or risk at least 450 jobs and perhaps as many as 600 jobs.
Gov. LePage supports a state takeover of the landfill. And that’s the right decision.
The arguments against buying the landfill are legitimate. The state would be taking on new responsibilities and environmental liability with hard to predict costs.
For Republicans and conservatives, the notion of the state taking ownership of a private business — interfering with the market — is ideologically impure. And for some Democrats, the deal smacks of a government bailout.
But the real world has a way of making ideological arguments irrelevant.
As part of the Baldacci administration, we worked on finding a buyer for the two mills for many months. Gov. John Baldacci was a staunch defender of the paper industry and fought for every job, becoming personally involved to save mills in Old Town, Lincoln and in East Millinocket and Millinocket.
Often, we were left with bad choices — like the one Gov. LePage faces right now.
In a similar situation, a deal was put together that saved the mill in Old Town by having the state take over the Juniper Ridge Landfill. To this day, the decision remains controversial. But nearly 200 people are employed at the mill today. They are doing cutting edge work on bio-fuel and making pulp.
I’m no longer in a position to know whether the state purchase of the Dolby landfill is the only answer to finding a buyer for the mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket. But I suspect that it is.
There are a lot of naysayers who talk about Maine’s paper industry in the past tense. They think it’s doomed and that the folks who are willing to do extraordinary things to save mills and the jobs they create are wasting time and resources.
They are wrong.
The paper industry in Maine has changed and contracted. It’s smaller, in terms of employment, than it once was. But the level of production continues to rank Maine among the largest paper producing states in the country. And the variances in global demand and global production, especially for pulp, have led to an export renaissance.
Maine’s paper industry can survive and thrive.
There are no guarantees, even if the state takes over the landfill.
Despite the promises to the contrary, there are no sure things. Not in private industry. Not in government. And not in life.
But the consequences for the Katahdin region and the state’s economy are dire and require intervention.
We should not throw up our hands and let those jobs and those communities slip away. For the workers and their families, it’s not about ideology or the appropriate role of government.
What should the state do to help save 450 jobs? Take over the landfill.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.