In my hometown of Millinocket, this was a difficult Labor Day. More than 200 workers at the Katahdin paper mill will be laid off as the mill closes in the coming days.
The closure of this mill is devastating not only for workers but for the entire community. Great Northern Paper was a fixture in the region. The company, which began operations in Millinocket in 1898, was a central participant in the community.
Great Northern employed more than 4,000 workers and owned millions of acres in northern Maine. While all company towns have their problems, the majority of the owners and managers of Great Northern lived and grew up in Maine. They were a part of the community and were invested in its future.
For most of us who grew up in the Millinocket area, working at the mill was our past, and we thought, our future. Our grandfathers and fathers worked at the mill, and we assumed that our children could do the same. But today’s changing economy has left our region, and our state, looking for new alternatives. After the company merged in the early 1970s with Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co., we all knew things had changed in Millinocket.
The company headquarters moved from Millinocket to Stamford, Conn., and the feeling that company officials were invested in the community was over. As ownership shifted to Georgia-Pacific, Bowater, and now Fraser-Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto, we have lost the personal connection the company had to our workers and community. Closure of a major manufacturing facility is not unique to Millinocket.
The changes I have seen during my working life in the mill echo what workers all over Maine, indeed throughout this country, have seen — the globalization of the economy. Workers today recognize that a secure job for life at a large manufacturing facility is no longer their future.
Local people understand we can no longer depend upon one major employer. Tourism is certainly one industry that is well suited to our beautiful natural surroundings and will become a bigger part of our local economy. Yet many of the service jobs in the tourism field will not provide the wages and benefits necessary to provide for a family. It is crucial to grow new small businesses and encourage existing companies that will provide quality jobs. A central reason cited for the mill closure is the high cost of energy.
The East Millinocket mill was updated and supplements its oil burner with a biomass burner, which is a cheaper and more efficient energy system than the one used by the No. 11 machine in Millinocket. While Fraser Papers has committed to reopening the mill next year, the uncertainty is extremely stressful for workers and their families. In addition, the employees who are losing their jobs are dealing with the same rising energy costs at home. State officials have two goals to assist these employees as we move into the fall: first, take care of workers whose lives are devastated by the loss of a job; and, second, work with Fraser Papers to reopen the mill.
Maine Department of Labor staff will be available at the Higher Education Center (K-Tech) this week to meet with affected workers to determine what state and federal benefits can assist them during the coming months. Gov. John Baldacci and others in the administration will continue to work with Fraser to explore ways to replace the existing boiler so that the mill can reopen next year.
While it will be a difficult fall and winter, the spirit and determination of my friends and neighbors in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway give me confidence in our future. The people who live here are committed to making this beautiful place they call home a place their children can call home as well. We are used to hard work in the Katahdin area. I know that by working together we can bring economic growth to the region and opportunity for our children.
Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket, represents District 10 in the Maine House of Representatives.