MILLINOCKET, Maine — The looming loss of the town’s last paper machine symbolizes more than the end of a century of papermaking. The auction next month of the No. 11 machine and other papermaking equipment will leave Millinocket without about half its tax revenues, town leaders said Wednesday.
The machine and other equipment carries a tax valuation of almost $78 million — enough to leave Millinocket looking for another $3 million in cuts from the $6.5 million in combined town and school budgets proposed for the 2014-15 fiscal year, Town Manager Peggy Daigle said.
The full economic impact of the loss of the machine won’t be felt until the 2015-16 tax year, Daigle said. She proposes the $3 million cut to cushion that impact by effectively spreading it across two years.
Without it, Daigle said, town taxpayers would be paying about $39 per every $1,000 of assessed property value in the 2015-16 fiscal year. A $39 mill rate would leave taxpayers paying $1,950 in taxes on $50,000 homes. Under the present $29.50 mill rate, the highest in the Katahdin region, a $50,000 home gets charged $1,475 annually.
The Town Council called an unprecedented public meeting with all town and school workers for 4 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the revenue loss. Town councilors who gathered informally at the town office Wednesday bemoaned the financial impact of the news and the town’s loss of identity.
“It sucks,” Town Councilor Michael Madore said Wednesday. “I would like to be more eloquent on that, but it is impossible to go ahead and see the last stages of something that has been 100 years in the making — and was sustaining our community.”
Council Chairman Richard Angotti said he was surprised to hear about the auction sale, but he and other residents said they didn’t expect the machine, which shut down in 2008, would ever restart.
“Did we know it was coming? Yes,” Madore said of the likely end of Millinocket papermaking. “But it still doesn’t take away from the fact that it seems to take part of your family away from you. That’s something you are never going to get back. It is the last vestige of what was probably at one time one of the greatest companies in the U.S. I personally put it up there with U.S. Steel.”
Other residents said that the loss of papermaking was yet another reason for people to move away and accelerate a population decline that has caused the Katahdin region to lose slightly more than half its almost 10,000 residents over the last two decades.
“I look at it as so many people are leaving that the town is dying off,” said Brittany Tinkham, 21, of East Millinocket. “The only gas station in East Millinocket we are now losing because there aren’t enough people in the area.”
“People were surviving on the hope that the mill would open back up,” Tinkham added.
“I think it is sad, but I will be honest with you. I didn’t think it was ever going to start up again,” said Nancy Carlstrom of Millinocket, whose husband retired from the Millinocket paper mill after working there as a millwright for more than 20 years.
“I can remember,” Carlstrom said, “when all the companies were in here building it. Well, it was a great thing for our town. It made good paper, and our town was prosperous back then.”
The first paper mill company formed on the Katahdin region opened in 1900 under the direction of Garrett Schenck. In its heyday, the Great Northern Paper Co. ran 17 paper machines and employed more than 4,000 workers.
The mill’s industrial might peaked after World War II, when it owned more than 2 million acres of timberland. It began producing specialty papers for magazines, newspaper supplements, paperbacks and catalogs in the 1950s, according to a history compiled by the University of Maine.
By then, Millinocket had the highest per-capita income levels in the state.
“I came to Millinocket in 1956. I was a sophomore in high school, and this was a booming town back then. It was a busy place,” said 74-year-old George Nelson, who runs George’s Barber Shop on Katahdin Avenue.
“You could graduate from high school, and you could go to work in the mill,” Carlstrom said. “All the young people stayed here, and we were prosperous in this town.”
Refurbished in December 2001, the No. 11 was the centerpiece of that prosperity and pride, making what its operators called the world’s best supercalendered uncoated paper grades. But by then, a succession of corporations that first emerged in 1989, when Georgia-Pacific Corporation launched a hostile takeover of Great Northern Nekoosa, had begun stripping the mill of its assets piece by piece.
The No. 11 was the last of the 17 machines when Brascan Corporation of Toronto bought the Millinocket and East Millinocket mills in April 2003 and renamed the two mills the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC.
Cate Street Capital announced in November 2012 that it would begin razing old buildings and selling scrap to help pay for operations of the East Millinocket paper mill, and its plans to launch a $140 million pellet mill and turn the Katahdin Avenue mill site into an industrial park. The auction, company officials said Tuesday, is another step in those efforts.
Carlstrom said she doesn’t think the pellet mill will restore Millinocket’s prosperity.
“Now there’s just nothing. Eventually, it’s going to be just retired people around here,” she said. “If it comes, it will employ a few people, but you’re not going to see a significant gain in this town, I don’t think.”
“Times have changed,” he said. “Lockheed isn’t going to come here and build airplanes, and I don’t think we’re ever going to see paper here again.”