The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

September 16, 2013

Former mayor offers advice after Alabama mill closing

DECATUR — The former mayor of a Louisiana city that experienced two International Paper mill closings said the Tennessee Valley faces a regional challenge.

But it's one it can survive.

"You can bet that those places employees pass on their way to work will feel the sting," said Clarence Hawkins, former mayor of Bastrop, the county seat of Morehouse Parish in north Louisiana, near the Arkansas border.

The city lost a paper mill in the 1970s and another one in 2008. Both closings cost the region about 2,500 to 3,000 jobs, Hawkins said.

Unlike IP's announcement Wednesday that it would permanently shutter the Courtland mill by March 31, the company's final closure in Bastrop happened over time, he said.

It had a negative impact on our economy, and a lot of our citizens moved away, but we survived," Hawkins said.

Gov. Robert Bentley announced Thursday that he will try to save the 1,096 jobs at the Courtland facility.

The mill, which has been the largest employer in Lawrence County for almost four decades, has an $86 million payroll.

"You can't take this amount of disposable income out of a region and expect it not to hurt businesses beyond the mill," Hawkins said.

Councilman Chuck Ard expects Decatur to feel the sting, "the extent of which I don't know," he said. "I'm sure a lot of the people that work at the mill spend money in Decatur."

IP spokeswoman Laura Gipson said 236 of the employees losing jobs are from Morgan County.

Lawrence County Industrial Development Board Executive Director Tony Stockton and Morgan County Industrial Board President Jeremy Nails said Friday they still are digesting the gravity of the situation.

"The entire area as a whole has to survive this unfortunate situation," Nails said. "We're going to poll our existing industries to see what opportunities may be out there."

Although during different economic times, the Tennessee Valley already has faced this challenge.

In 2006, Delphi announced it was closing its automotive plant in Limestone County near Calhoun. By 2008, almost 2,100 employees had lost jobs and a more than $50 million payroll left the area.

Two years ago, Wayne Farms in Decatur eliminated 365 employees, and a Hartselle factory that made air-conditioning components cut almost 500 jobs.

In Bastrop, current Mayor Arthur Jones said the city still is recovering from IP's 2008 decision.

He said the city lost about 1,000 residents and its budget took a $2 million hit in combined property and sales taxes. The number of city employees declined from 200 to 140.

"We combined some city departments, and we're still watching how we spend money," Jones said.

The town of Courtland, as well as the Lawrence County Commission and school system, will be most affected by tax losses. Almost half of Courtland's annual revenue comes from a $771,000 payment from IP.

Hawkins said about 65 percent of the workers at the Bastrop mill didn't reside in the city, so the impact on the housing market there was spread out.

"This is basically a farming region, and people in rural areas moved to Bastrop when mill workers left," he said.

Hawkins said things will never be the same in the Tennessee Valley, which will have to recover one job at a time.

The good news is the area is experiencing industrial growth in other sectors. Pennsylvania-based Carpenter Technology is constructing a $500 million, 400,000-square-foot plant at Thomas Hammons Road and U.S. 31 in Tanner.

The facility will produce specialty alloys used in the aerospace and energy industries, and will employ 200 by July 2016.

In Lawrence County's Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex, Jack Daniel Cooperage is building a $60 million plant that will produce 200 jobs with the starting pay averaging $16 per hour.

The plant will make toasted barrels for the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn.

Stockton said another company that is not ready to be named has signed a letter of intent for 80 acres in the complex and is expected to bring 100 jobs.

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