BUCKSPORT — Shock and dismay swept through Bucksport Wednesday after Verso Paper Corp. announced that the town’s paper mill will close by year’s end leaving 570 people jobless.
“I’m shocked,” said Town Manager Derik Goodine, who’d rushed back from a meeting in Augusta to be there.
“Huge surprise,” said Economic Development Director David Milan. “Right now, my gut’s just ripped out. That’s what I feel like. To me, this is akin to a death in the family.”
What wasn’t news yesterday was the description of the poor performance by the Bucksport facility in recent years. Lyle Fellows, Verso’s senior vice president of manufacturing and energy, said the mill hasn’t posted a profit since before the 2008 recession.
This year, during a particular cold winter that saw natural gas prices rocket, the mill had to suspend operations for two weeks. Lack of investments also led its property value to depreciate by $9 million.
“The Bucksport mill, unfortunately, has not been profitable for a number of years, in spite of our employees’ dedicated efforts to make it so. Our assessment indicates that it is impossible for the mill to achieve profitability in today’s marketplace,” said Verso president and chief executive officer, Dave Paterson, in a statement released just before the press conference.
The mill will cease operations Dec. 1, with layoffs beginning then.
The company’s board arrived at the closure decision earlier Wednesday, Fellows said, and that it was not made lightly. He said the closure has nothing to do with company’s ongoing merger with NewPage Holdings, North American’s largest glossy paper producers that has eight mills, including one in Rumford.
Fellows also clarified that Verso won’t close its mill in Jay, because that facility remains profitable. Demand for the glossy stock produced in Bucksport has declined, as the Internet and digital devices have overtaken magazines as the reading platform of choice for many Americans and worldwide.
“This decision is especially difficult because of the significant impact that the closure of the Bucksport mill will have on many people across the region, especially our long-serving and hard-working employees and their families,” said Fellows, standing alongside Bucksport mill Manager Dennis Castonguay.
Then he added, “We have to thank all the employees at this mill for the years and years of dedicated service to the surrounding community, and of any state and local officials who have partnered with us for various activities throughout the years.”
It was one such partnership that left Milan confused about yesterday’s announcement. He sat down with Verso representatives fewer than two months ago to discuss a vocational program the town and mill were coordinating with Eastern Maine Community College, in which eight local students have enrolled.
Although he knew of the mill’s business troubles, Milan said, “We were certainly led to believe that everything was going fine.” According to Milan, 24 percent of the mill’s workers are Bucksport residents. The rest are spread out across the whole state.
Of greatest concern, Goodine said, were the families immediately affected by the closure. “When that shock wears off,” Goodine said he’d meet with the Town Council and management team to consider how to help those affected and chart a course for the town.
The manager said he’d prepare more of a response this week.
According to Bucksport Tax Assessor Jef Fitzgerald, 45.6 percent of this year’s property tax — $358.5 million — comes from the Verso mill and power plant. Last year, it covered 46.1 percent, or $367 million. The town has been developing a new comprehensive plan and long-term investment strategy, a process sure to be affected by yesterday’s news.
On Wednesday, Fellows clarified the company will continue to operate a 273-megawatt power plant also located at the Bucksport site. He also expressed the company’s commitment to helping those laid off, working with union officials and salaried employees to manage severance benefits and other assistance.
Gov. Paul LePage was quick to respond to the closure, saying in a statement that he’d called an emergency meeting with his economic development team about “working with Verso and other interested parties in order to keep the mill open. We will assess any and all options as we move forward.”
Today, Thursday at 2:30, LePage will provide an update “with regard to the emergency meeting with his economic development team,” according to his office.
The Governor will address the media at Maine Military Supply in Holden.
“My thoughts are with the workers and families who are affected by this closure,” the governor said. “As an administration, we stand ready to provide resources to them, including the training and support needed to transition into new job opportunities.”
The state Department of Labor also announced it was deploying its Rapid Response team to the region to assist those affected.
A number of federal officials, including U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, also issued statement declaring they’d help secure resources for the millworkers.
Closer to home was state Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, whose district includes Bucksport. Campbell, who attended yesterday’s meeting, reacted with the same shock as the town officials.
“Even though it’s not been profitable, it hasn’t been on the radar for complete closure,” Campbell said. “To have 400 or 500 employees have to just look for another job is not good for anyone, any family in the community.”
On a hopeful note, Campbell added that Bucksport, a town of 5,000, has grit.
“It’s a strong community, with tremendous assets: the river, the roads, the rail and the power line,” he said. “We’ll just have to build on what we have.”