Friday, June 13, 2008

A New Paper Mill!

There hasn’t been a new paper mill built in the USA in over 30 years and in the past decade there have been 150 mills that have closed down, leaving only about 450 left in the country. Actually, this blog isn’t about someone building a new paper mill here, but rather how two guys helped to make sure that there was one that could reopen if and when the time came. This is their story….a real CAN DO story! Thanks to David Zembiec of the Tug Hill Commission in upstate NY who sent it to me. I was there earlier this year to do a talk to their regional group and fell in love with their region of the state which encompasses 1/3 of the land area but has only 3% of the state’s population.

The Newton Falls Paper Mill was started in 1894 by the Newton family. The tiny hamlet of a couple hundred people, too small to have its own census data, was essentially a one horse town with the mill being the major employer in the area after a nearby iron-ore mill closed in the 70s. When the paper mill closed in 2000, most of the former workers had to drive over 50 miles to find work.

Two of those workers, Andy Leroux (44) and Levi Durham, Jr. (51) both found work at another paper-making plant 44 miles away but when that plant closed a year later they worked some odd jobs as they developed a plan to revitalize “their” paper mill. After seeing part of the roof in the 400,000 sf building collapse due to a heavy snow load and sadly watching the plant fall into further disrepair, the two decided to take things into their own hands, or as Andy told the N Y Times, “We decided to stop thinking about our mill and actually do something to save it.”

The Appleton Coated Paper Mill, which still owned the plant, bought into their plan and agreed to hire the two to look after the plant as they desperately tried to sell the plant to anyone who would look at. I’ve seen many other such abandoned plants in my day, buying a couple of them, and generally what you find is that caretakers like this who used to work at the plant sit around playing cards and bemoaning the fact that the economic engine in town is dead. They sit around, hoping that the old times return. And, they never do.

If Leroux and Durham had taken that approach, they would have been correct. No one was ever going to reopen a plant that was in as bad of shape as the Newton Falls Paper Mill. But, they didn’t just sit around letting the building and equipment slowly deteriorate. Rather, they lubricated machines, shoveled snow, swept up debris and tried to make the plant look like it had just closed down. And, they kept that up for years as they continued to try to find anyone who would buy the plant to operate it rather than just scrapping it out.

In 2006, this two man ED organization approached Dennis Bunnell, who had once been president of the mill, showing him how they had maintained the building and paper making equipment. He put together a plan, some partners and purchased the long closed plant for $20 million.

On Sept. 7, 2007, the new Newton Falls Fine Paper plant reopened with 97 new employees, including Leroux and Durham. Over 600 applicants applied for those jobs with about half of the workforce having worked in the mill previously. Many left their new employment to return to “their mill.”

Raymond Fountain, head of the St. Lawrence County Office of Economic Development says of the new mill, “It is adding about $18 million to our local economy, including a $4 million payroll.”

And, it all happened because two “Can Do” guys said, “This isn’t going to happen to my mill. We’re going to do something to get it back going.”


Anonymous said...

This is a truly inspirational story that bears repeating. A dream can go a long way.

The story would be more complete if you also recognized the other motivating forces in town and county economic development, not to mention the founders and investors who laid their personal money on the line to save this mill. This is a true miracle and a story with a happy ending.

Anonymous said...

The other side of the story remains to be told... How did the Econ. Dev. Authority contribute to the continued success of the mill... How did Appleton support the concept or did they walk away after the sale.

In just the last two weeks, four Eastern mills have announced being shuttered after the mandatory union notification period (typically 60 days).

The manufacturing of goods in the USA is as important a factor for the health of the economy as is the financial sector, the government sector and all the service sectors combined. Current statistics seem to indicate that for the first time in US history there are more Government employees than there are manufacturing employees in the country... If it were for products manufactured in the USA, we would not be able to afford a government...Isn't it about time the Federal Government give the manufacutrers a little incentive to make the US once more the quality and originality leader of the industrial world?

Anonymous said...

wish you the best of luck in your mill

Anonymous said...

"There hasn’t been a new paper mill built in the USA in over 30 years"

are you sure about that?

BoomtownUSA said...

I have been told that by several people in the paper and timber industry. They are all very concerned with the lack of new plants.