The closure of the Canton paper mill is having a ripple effect across Western North Carolina.
That's according to speakers at a June 1 forum in Buncombe County.
“The ripple effects of the mill closure are greater than Canton proper, and the Pactiv mill,” said Erica Anderson, deputy director of the Land of Sky Council. “It's going to impact other industries, and I know everyone here is really working with that in mind as well down the road.”
A town hall and listening session focusing on the May 25 closure of the Pactiv Evergreen Canton mill was held June 1 at the Enka-Candler Public Library, where panelists gave updates on the hardships the closure has sent through the community.
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Officials first offered information they had prepared on the effects of the shutdown, including the loss of 1,160 Canton jobs. Panel members took questions and discussed what local and state governments are doing to support businesses and workers impacted by the shutdown.
Anderson said Land of Sky's workforce development board is working in tandem with the Southwestern Workforce Development Board to find adequate financial assistance to displaced workers. Also in their crosshairs are the supply chains disrupted by the mill’s shutdown.
“We're still not sure what the impacts will be for our logging industry, for the forest products industry that covers all of Western North Carolina and parts of Upstate South Carolina,” Anderson said. “They all supply chips to the mill.”
Anderson also said the railway that transported these wood chips to the mill is looking at significant changes.
Drew Christy, director of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Western office, added that Blue Ridge Southern Railroad has been forced to lay off half of its staff, as 72% of all freight that came from Asheville to Canton went directly into the mill.
Christy said he is monitoring this ripple impact and encouraged locals to show their support to small businesses in the wake of the shutdown.
“I heard an interesting anecdote that there's a tool shop here in Candler that has already seen a 15% decrease in sales from all the truckers that aren't coming by to shop and buy tools,” Christy said. “So, we need to make sure that we all bypass the big box stores and shop local to help support our local businesses.”
Christy told the audience that both Cooper’s office and Attorney General Josh Stein are hard at work in their effort to hold Pactiv Evergreen accountable for failing to fulfill an agreement that led to economic incentives for the company.
In 2015, the state provided a $12 million grant to Pactiv Evergreen, on the condition it keeps at least 800 employees on staff at the Canton mill through the end of 2024. Stein and Cooper wrote an open letter to the company soon after the mill’s closure was announced demanding it returns the grant.
“The governor's office had a conversation with Pactiv Evergreen,” Christy said. “Let’s just say that that conversation was not very fruitful.”
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Christy assured the audience, however, that financial aid was available to impacted people, with or without the return of this grant money, and that Cooper’s offices are doing their best to secure more funding to further these programs.
Anderson said there are 13,000 job openings in the region, with an unemployment rate of only 2%, the lowest in N.C. However, the mill’s 1,160 employees were paid an average salary of $80,000, higher than the national and local average. While former mill workers may be able to find work, many have already encountered difficulties finding a salary that matches their needs. Programs listed by the panelists aim to provide a good starting point.
Some information Christy provided on funding and programming designed to provide assistance to impacted workers:
Another concern expressed by attendees and the panel was the future of Canton's wastewater treatment. The mill has been responsible for the treatment, and Pactiv Evergreen will be required to continue providing this for the next two years.
State Sen. Julie Mayfield said lawmakers representing Haywood are currently working to secure a $42 million package to support the town and school system in Canton as well as to fund the siting and building of a new wastewater treatment plant.
Christy added that the town has been in talks with Pactiv Evergreen to potentially extend the required two years of maintenance to the treatment plant. A new wastewater treatment plant will come with a hefty price tag and will require five to six years to complete.
“No amount of money is going to speed up the timeframe to get to it,” Christy said. “It's just going to take time. So, we've got to work with the town to figure out what to do at for these additional three-plus years after Evergreen is no longer obligated to operate.”
The panel encouraged those impacted by the mill's shutdown to take advantage of available resources. Canton’s website, Milltown Strong, is devoted to helping affected residents land on their feet and remain safe and healthy as they take their next steps. Cooper’s resources page provides further resources, as well as information on the grant money it expects to have returned by Pactiv Evergreen.
Iris Seaton is the Citizen Times News Reporting Intern. Email her at [email protected].