Canton paper mill closure like “a death in the family”

An image of the Canton, N.C., paper mill when it was the Champion Paper Mill. Attribution to Warren LeMay via Wiki Commons.

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  • "This is not just 1,300 jobs; this is our blue-collar identity." said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers.

A paper mill, which has been operating for more than 100 years and is integral to the economy of Canton, is slated to close by June 2023. This will force around 1,300 workers currently employed at the mill to seek new jobs.

Pactiv Evergreen, who owns the mill and is headquartered in Lake Forest, IL, stated via Beth Kelly, the company’s director of communications, that the closure is part of the company’s restructuring and reorganization plan for management structure and their beverage merchandising segment.

According to Haywood County officials, this was a decision no one saw coming and has left the small mountain town just west of Asheville searching for answers. Carolina Journal spoke with Zeb Smathers, mayor of Canton, who said the closure of the mill is akin to losing a family member.

“We’ve had a death in the family,” he said. “I had a mill worker tell me that. That’s exactly what it is and exactly what it feels like. Like a death, you just experience the numbness and shock of a sudden loss and that’s what happened out of the blue. I had to call the governor’s office and let them know. It’s shameful that we had to find out through social media that the workers were losing their jobs. I saw workers coming in with tears in their eyes, and I am heartbroken. I hear stories of kids in the school system crying because they are going to have to move away from their friends so their parents can find jobs elsewhere. There’s just sadness and hurt.”

An identity lost

“It comes down to the numbness and shock of what had happened,” Smathers said. “This is not just 1,300 jobs; this is our blue-collar identity. We had worked our way back economically over the last decade by embracing our blue-collar heritage.”

He is also angry that the hardworking taxpayers of Haywood County will have their tax dollars wasted as a result of the pending mill closure and feels that the company displayed a lack of trust and respect. In 2015, a subsidiary of Pactiv Evergreen was awarded a Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund (JMAC) Grant, which was used to convert two of its coal-fired boilers to natural gas at the Haywood County plant. The grant was formulated and awarded after the N.C. House failed to pass a bill which would have awarded $12 million in grant funding for the paper mill.

“Back in 2014, there was a JMAC to switch a boiler over to natural gas,” said Smathers. “There have been other grants locally. If they [Pactiv Evergreen] complied, great. If they didn’t, I want that money brought back. I want our taxpayer money back, especially in Haywood County. You broke your word in more ways than one, and there are repercussions for that. One of the things I’ve talked a lot about is respect. Yes, we’re dealing with mourning and finding ways forward with these people’s jobs but in some regards, this is very sickening to me given how it all went down.”

Stock sale prompts calls for SEC investigation

It was later reported that Pactiv Evergreen executives sold off more than 50,000 shares of stock prior to the announced closure of the Canton mill, prompting a call by Congressman Chuck Edwards, a Republican who represents the area in the U.S. House, for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the company’s actions.

C.J. also spoke with N.C. House Rep. Mark Pless, R-Canton, who expressed dismay at the news of the stock sales.

“That’s a troublesome problem,” he said. “I’m not sure why that happened. I think that Congressman Edwards sending a request for an investigation is very appropriate. All of us were thinking that same thing. We need some answers as to why that happened. They should be held accountable for it.”

Addressing the impact of the mill closure

Haywood County officials and community leaders have been meeting to discuss how to move forward in the aftermath of the closure announcement. Pless shares the sentiment of all who have been affected by the mill closure.

“I think the initial shock has subsided some. It’s still very traumatizing,” he said. “We had a prayer meeting at Sorrells Street Park, where several hundred people joined. We were able to engage with some of the folks there. The pastors do a great job speaking. I think the first thing that really comes to mind is that people are finally acknowledging the possibility that this is going to happen in the next few months. Initially the shock was that there is no way this is real. I think now the reality has sunk in. Everyone is starting to move forward and figure out what to do next.”

In terms of what local and state officials plan to do in order to help the town overcome the negative effect on the local economy, Pless said that among other efforts, he is working with Haywood Community College on proposals to utilize local and state resources to assist people in finding new employment across other job sectors. The community college recently hosted an event led by their president, Dr. Shelley White.

“Dr. White has dealt with this in other areas where she has been in the college system. She brought her workforce development director and several other officials. All those folks were brought together to talk about some resources and some avenues that we’re going to be able to go down in terms of job training, finding jobs,” Pless said.

Pless is also examining legislative avenues, trying to receive answers from the company about how to address the impact going forward.

“There are some legislative proposals being drafted to deal with some of the things that had happened up to this point,” he said. “I reached out to the liaison for the corporation, and I would love to have a conversation with them, so I know what’s going on, so I can understand whether there is something the state can do and whether there’s a funding mechanism we can put together to help them through this difficult time.”

The impact to the local community in the wake of paper mill closure affects not only Canton and Haywood County, but also other regional industries in Tennessee and South Carolina, which are vital to the effective operation of the mill. The impacts are far reaching and have required assistance from the state to address them. Smathers has also been in discussions with Gov. Roy Cooper about how the state can respond to the closure.

“I talked to Gov. Cooper, and he referred to this as a statewide crisis; and he’s correct,” Smathers said. “The amount of money with trucking and all the tentacles of this place — it’s not just 1,300 jobs. It’s much greater than that — from Tennessee to South Carolina, the trucking industry, the shipping industry, mechanics, and machinery. Because it’s a statewide crisis, I agree with the governor that we have to respond with a statewide solution to make sure this economic black hole doesn’t swallow up other places.”

Smathers strongly believes that the town will rebound from the closure and that the local economy will bounce back.

“We pride ourselves on being a mill town. It’s on our stores; it’s on our children’s jerseys at the high school. Being a mill town is not so much about having a mill and the machinery inside; it’s the people inside. It’s relationships, and it’s the blue-collar workers,” he continued. “Those traits will carry us into the next chapter. This is not the end of this town or this county. It’s the turning of a page and the story of our comeback. We are a blue-collar town that has to fight its way back. We hope our comeback story inspires others, and we look to our sister cities and what they have faced and what they’ve been through. We will find a way forward again; that is what we’ve always done and will always do.”

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who represents North Carolina, showed his support on social media, saying that his “office stands ready to assist the community as they work to overcome this new challenge.”