BUCKSPORT, Maine — David Warren was one of the last workers laid off when Verso Paper shut down its mill here five years ago, eliminating more than 500 jobs.
Earlier this year, the 64-year-old former mill maintenance worker began a new chapter in his life by opening a business on Main Street, Warren’s Waterfront Restaurant.
“The town wasn’t doing all that bad when the mill closed, and it hasn’t changed much since,” Warren said during a break from washing dishes in the kitchen. “It has gained a little bit.”
A half decade after Bucksport lost its major employer, a number of signs point toward a gradual rebound — and show how far the town still has to go.
There’s been a steady drumbeat of development news in the town. A company expects to break ground on a salmon farm at the former mill property in November. Maine Maritime Academy expects to train 2,400 students each year at an annex on the mill property. A handful of seafood processing businesses have opened at the town’s industrial park. The downtown is basically full.
And like Warren, most of the laid-off millworkers who wanted to continue working have found new jobs, according to a recent analysis on the defunct mill’s workforce, local labor statistics and interviews with former mill workers.
But by some metrics, the Bucksport of 2019 isn’t back to what it was before the mill shuttered.
The town’s unemployment rate skyrocketed after the mill closure to slightly more than 12 percent in 2015, twice the state’s unemployment rate that year, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist of the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.
This year, it has settled at slightly over 3 percent, comparable to the state’s average unemployment rate, he said.
Meanwhile, average wages in the town have yet to regain the ground they lost when the mill closed.
The town’s average annual wages peaked in 2015 at $53,957, according to Mills, but dropped to $33,018 in 2016 as the impact of the layoffs set in. By 2018, the town’s average annual wage had crept up slightly to $36,888, compared with $46,810 statewide.
Those statistics echo the experiences of former millworkers who recently spoke with the BDN.
“It seems that most everybody that I know who wants to work has gone to work,” said former millworker Brian Allen, 62, of Bucksport.
Of 575 workers who lost their jobs when Verso closed its Bucksport mill, 315 had found new jobs as of earlier this year, according to an analysis done for Eastern Maine Community Development Corp.
Another 81 were in training for new careers, 54 had retired, and 81 were searching for work. The remaining 44 are listed as out of work for medical reasons, deceased or “other.”
There’s a good chance those with new jobs aren’t earning as much as they did when they worked at the mill.
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Don Sorey, who worked in the mill’s human resources department, said he knows of three former colleagues who went to Beal College and became personnel specialists at other companies. Several found jobs at supermarkets. Others were hired at the Verso Paper mill in Jay, he said.
“Those who had other interests before the mill folded — some of them were part-time fishermen, lobstermen, some were farmers, some had small businesses of their own — they found other things to do,” said Sorey, who is retired.
Most have recovered from the emotional trauma of being laid off, Sorey said, but they probably haven’t recovered financially.
“For many of them, this was their life,” he said.
To Sorey, the town won’t have fully recovered until about 1,200 people, the number employed at the mill during its heyday decades ago, are working at the mill site again.
Some jobs would return if Whole Oceans’ land-based salmon farm goes up as planned. The company expects to hire 75 workers when a first phase of construction is finished in about two years, with the possibility of that number increasing to about 200 if an expansion happens.
The Maine Maritime Academy annex would draw a handful of jobs to Bucksport, but its primary economic selling point is that it would draw hundreds of students in need of training to the town who could patronize local businesses.
Former millworker Bill Gray credited residents and town leaders for quickly accepting the mill’s closure and taking the town in new directions.
“The best thing about the recovery is that [townspeople] didn’t fall apart,” said Gray, who now works as an assistant manager at the town marina. “We all just didn’t run in every direction or put our head in the sand. We got to work. We started to develop Bucksport.”
The town’s identity is changing, said 66-year-old Rose Krienke of Orland, who worked at the mill with her husband, Dale, and now cleans houses.
“It now seems more like a bedroom community,” she said, noting that many former millworkers now commute to larger communities within driving distance, such as Bangor and Ellsworth.
“The town has stayed positive,” Sorey said. “Individual workers have found other things even though they, in most cases, are making half of what they were making.”