Hundreds Of Jobs Depend On Local Paper Mills' Fate

Factory output in the U.S. has gone up for the ninth straight month, but in many rural, one-industry towns, financial hardship continues. In the Northern Maine community of Millinocket, local leaders are racing the clock to reopen two paper mills before they shut down for good, are disassembled and sold for scrap. Hundreds of jobs and the already-fragile economies of two communities are at risk.

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U.S. factories produce more goods for a ninth consecutive month but in many of the country's rural one-industry towns financial hardship continues. In northern Maine, local officials are racing against the clock to reopen two paper mills before they're shut down for good, disassembled and sold for scrap. As Jay Field of Maine Public Radio reports, hundreds of jobs in the already fragile economies of two communities are at risk.

JAY FIELD: The mills sit on the bank of the Penobscot River - unoccupied masses, concrete, steel trusses, conveyor belts in buildings many football fields long. Flatbed 18-wheelers filled with logs drive past without stopping.

Mr. MARK SCALLY: Failure's not an option and giving up is certainly not an option.

FIELD: Mark Scally stands outside the East Millinocket Municipal Building staring at the mill across the street. He sat of the town's board of selectmen and a little over a week ago, Scally was still hopeful local officials here would sell this mill and the one in nearby Millinocket to Meriturn Partners, a San Francisco turnaround company, for $1 in cash and millions in property tax breaks. But the deal collapsed.

Mr. SCALLY: There were 14 buyers for this mill at one point - or at least 14 interested parties. But now that Meriturn has cleared the way by making us do our concessions, perhaps we're more attractive to some of these people. Now they realize how low we'll sink in order to accommodate the jobs that they can create.

FIELD: Unless a new buyer steps forward, the mills will close for good on April 29th. More than 600 jobs will disappear in an area where the unemployment rate is already above 15 percent. The state's political leaders are working with local officials and the current owner to prevent that from happening. But if they fail, a way of life that treated so many so well for so long here will cease.

You can see the stacks, a little bit, of the mill from here still.

Mr. RICHARD MANZO: Yeah, I walk back and forth to work all my life, just a step, a footbridge across the river down here.

FIELD: Now, 79-year-old retiree Richard Manzo walks across the street from his house in Millinocket and into a converted garage that's part-workshop part-social club. Shortly after his started in the Millinocket Mill in 1948, he wanted to build a house.

Mr. MANZO: When I got ready to build, they sent a bulldozer over and an engineer. He set up the batter boards. The engineer bulldozed out my foundation, no charge.

FIELD: The company sent a cement mixer over and paid a guy time-and-a-half to pour the foundation. But those days are a distant memory now. In recent years, ownership of the mills has changed hands many times and their overall value has declined dramatically.

Mr. PETER POLETTI: That's why we lose our jobs, because there's no tax revenue here coming in from the mill. You see what I'm saying? So, they have to cut the budgets in the town.

FIELD: Peter Poletti lost one of his jobs recently fixing things and doing janitorial work at the East Millinocket Municipal Building. If the mills close, the two towns will lose most of their property tax revenue, schools may close, teachers and other town workers could get laid off and programs and services will almost certainly be cut.

Ms. JOAN FISHER: People are going to have to move. People are already moving. You know, we've lost a lot of people.

FIELD: Joan Fisher and some other lifelong Millinocket residents stayed to talk after dinner one night at a restaurant downtown. Fisher worked in one of the mills for years before an injury forced her to quit. She shudders at the possibility they may close for good. If that happens, she says, it's going to be devastating.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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