PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s top legislators began a tour of the state’s paper mills on Thursday, as part of the lead-up to a summit focused on the future of the industry that has endured numerous closings and layoffs in recent years.
Staff for Senate President Mike Thibodeau. R-Winterport, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, announced the tour would start Thursday in Madison at the UPM Madison mill and in Skowhegan at Sappi’s Somerset mill.
The tour is coordinated with the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, which will host a summit on Nov. 17 at the Bangor Hilton Garden Inn. The group is set to tour the Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue mills in Baileyville on Nov. 12.
Legislators joining the tour are set to share their take on the tours and meetings with paper industry experts during the conference.
“It will be very beneficial for legislators to hear directly from the folks who work in the industry about the challenges they face,” Thibodeau said in a prepared statement. “While high energy costs are certainly a major factor, I believe we will learn there are other challenges that need to be addressed as well.”
Eves said he planned to speak with workers about training and retraining programs, too.
“As I’ve traveled across the state on our jobs tour, we’ve focused on making sure our workers can get the skills and training they need to get a good-paying job,” Eves said. “The manufacturing and machining skills that millworkers have are highly sought after in other industries.”
The daylong Maine Pulp and Paper Association conference, ” Transforming Maine’s Pulp and Paper Industry for the Future,” aims to focus on what paper mills have done to survive and the future of the industry.
And despite closures and layoffs, the group said it aims to provide a picture of how significant the paper industry remains to the state’s economy. In 2014, the group said capital investments at Maine mills topped $100 million. Federal payroll statistics show mills paid about $264 million in wages last year, or 10 percent of a total $2.6 billion of the state’s total manufacturing payrolls last year.
Donna Cassese, head of the association, said in a telephone interview that the association hopes the conference will bring together manufacturers, woodlot owners, policymakers and union representatives to discuss the industry’s challenges and opportunities.
She said the recently restructured pulp and paper association doesn’t plan to hold the event annually, but that having such meetings every so often is important.
“We need to be kind of checking temperatures and coming together and having these discussions, not just when there are mill closures in the background,” Cassese said.