Millinocket woman creates Web group for displaced millworkers

Posted May 01, 2011, at 12:36 p.m.
Last modified May 01, 2011, at 3:45 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — A century of papermaking has ended in the Katahdin region. It might never come back.

That’s why Susan D’Alessandro has created a place where anyone in the world can express their rage, regrets or float ideas to help those affected.

D’Alessandro’s katahdincares Internet group debuted last week at yahoo.com  and as of Saturday, with no publicity, had attracted 23 members, she said.

“The idea is to provide a forum for people who are concerned about what’s going on and to offer constructive ideas,” D’Alessandro said during a telephone interview from New Jersey, where she is helping her ailing mother.

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“That’s part of the beauty of the Internet,” she added. “Everyone is sitting home alone in their living room whining about what’s going on. We all need to stand up and be counted. It’s way past time.”

Meriturn Partners LLC announced on April 8 the end of its efforts to buy the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills from Brookfield Asset Management for $1. The San Francisco investor cited a failure to meet its goals and several East Millinocket mill customers’ seeking other vendors. That left about 450 millworkers jobless.

State and local officials had begun trying to find a new East Millinocket owner for at least several months previous and to help Brookfield revitalize the Millinocket mill since it closed in September 2008, idling about 150 workers.

Thus the future of papermaking in Katahdin, arguably Maine’s most storied location for papermaking and the forest products industry, hangs on continuing efforts to find a mills’ buyer, which Brookfield officials have given about 90 days before mill decommissioning will begin.

The shutdown’s impact hasn’t been fully felt yet, but workers will receive one more paycheck and some severance pay and officials in East Millinocket and Millinocket predict town government layoffs. East Millinocket school board members have voted to close one school.

It has prompted everything from prayer to a visit from Gov. Paul LePage set for Tuesday, his first since assuming office in January, and the extension of invitations to President Obama.

All of this is painful and frustrating to D’Alessandro, a town resident since 1976 whose son is a third-generation logger. The region’s slide from a top papermaking site employing several thousand to April’s closure has been a slow, excruciating process that has left Millinocket a far cry from what it was when she first arrived, when the town had one of the state’s highest per-capita income averages.

“It’s almost like we’re frozen in time. All this time has gone by and nothing has really changed except we don’t have anything anymore,” D’Alessandro said.

Original mill owner “Great Northern Paper had at one point 2.3 million acres for papermaking and the biggest hydro system in the country,” she added, “and now we’re down to what?”

D’Alessandro hopes her Yahoo group, which anyone can join, will help unemployed workers find jobs and other aid, businesses find workers and new ideas about revitalizing the region’s economy. She also hopes others will turn the site into a place for things she hasn’t anticipated.

“We can’t undo what’s happened but let’s work with what we’ve got before it’s too late,” D’Alessandro said. “We’re so isolated up there and trusting, and some of that is a lack of knowledge. People don’t know where to find the knowledge.”

A search of the Internet and Facebook revealed many pages or websites devoted to the Katahdin region and its economy, including one Facebook page devoted to drawing a Kmart to the region, but none appeared to be like D’Alessandro’s — a page done by a resident that aims to help millworkers.

Millinocket hasn’t had a great history with bulletin boards and websites, D’Alessandro said. As many as a half-dozen were created in the region starting in 2004 that often seemed to be more about sniping and boycotting than brainstorming and solving problems. All of them today seem inactive or gone.

D’Alessandro said she will welcome venting, but not vendettas.

“People are so intimidated about the term ‘economic development’ when really it’s just about brainstorming ideas. That is what I am trying to push,” she said. “No idea is silly; no idea is too small. There are so many talented people with so many ideas out there and there’s no way for them to get together. That’s what this is about.”

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