Presentation on theme: "A Mill Town Enters What May Be the Last Round of its Fight for Survival Text and photos by Scott C. Stackpole."— Presentation transcript:
A Mill Town Enters What May Be the Last Round of its Fight for Survival Text and photos by Scott C. Stackpole
A winters worth of highway sand billows in the springtime breeze as town crews go about their business of keeping the visible forces of decline at arms length. Hopes of better days in Newton Falls seem to rise, then settle, like the seasonal road dust. The couple of hundred people who cling to their weathered homes in this forlorn mill town on the remote western edge of New Yorks Adirondacks quietly acknowledge that their last chance for a measure of economic vitality may be at hand. Well downstream from the stylized rustic splendor of Adirondack fishing camps and hunting lodges, Newton Falls has borne the burden of Americas wholesale deindustrialization particularly hard. For nearly a century, two huge mills here produced iron ore and paper, and the factories whistles governed daily life in this tightly clustered hamlet that once took care of its own.
The Newton Falls landscape today reflects two hammer blows that staggered economic life following the global oil crisis in the mid-1970s. First, the Benson Mines iron ore operation and the adjacent Jones & Laughlin Steel Companys ore crushing plant shut down in 1978, turning more than 1,000 people out of work. Then in 1984, McGraw-Hill and its partner Chilton sold the Newton Falls Paper Co. to the first in a succession of absentee owners who did not share the publishers paternalistic concerns for the community and its people. The series of short-term paper mill owners steadily stripped down the mills value to the community in the name of maximizing assets, leaving the current facility with a production capacity short of current industry standards.
Prospects for the towns economic recovery now rest on whether Scotia Investments, a privately owned Canadian holding company that bought the sprawling paper mill along the Oswegatchie River in 2007 and promises a renewed commitment to the community, can broker a public-private partnership that would get – and keep – the plant running. Between 150 and 170 mill jobs could be developed over the next two years, according to Jay Rogers, the companys vice-president of sales and marketing, who stressed his companys commitment to restoring the bond between the mills owners and the community.
Optimism in town, however, is faltering, and time is working against the budding coalition. The towns four-story wooden-frame hotel, its bar and restaurant, the grocery store, filling station, bowling alley, and all the other small shops that once sustained Newton Falls and its people are long shut. The post office – with the ominous ZIP Code of 13666 – is on a list of rural post offices slated for closure later this year. If that happens, commerce in Newton Falls will officially cease. As it is, nearly every job and each run for groceries, gas, to the drug store, bank or school demands at least a 10-mile round trip to Star Lake or beyond. Some travel more than an hour to work, and everyone seems to know someone who has given up waiting out the latest high-stakes financial drama at the paper mill here and moved on. For some, hopes of better days keep them in Newton Falls; for others, its simply inertia or the want of financial means to leave.
The scar of industrial abandonment The crumbling robins-egg-blue buildings of the abandoned J&L plant greet residents and visitors alike as they approach or depart Newton Falls. This relic of the nations former industrial might sits at the junction of the main road to and from town along State Route 3, the east-west artery that runs through the Adirondacks. The once-thriving campus is now an icon of post-industrial blight and corporate neglect, reduced to a wasteland of broken-out windows, collapsed roofs, rusting iron and ruptured asphalt. Anything of value was salvaged decades ago, and the former owners defaulted on the property after an estimated million gallons of fuel oil spilled there. Saint Lawrence County and its taxpayers now have the burden of cleaning the property and finding new occupant s.
Beyond the 40-foot-high tailings piles that border the derelict J&L works is a two-and-a-half-mile-long spring-fed lake whose icy waters are as blue as Lake Tahoe and hundreds of feet deep. This was once the quarry where men operating huge machines dug iron ore. George Persson grades the dirt road along the east side of the lake now so loggers have access to clear-cut 100 acres a year on the 3,700-acre Benson Mines property. Persson is a retired shop teacher at the local high school and the son of a former paper company doctor. Hes the property caretaker during the warmer months, and knows the industrial legacies in and around Newton Falls. Persson brings his road grader to a stop to talk about the areas intricate corporate past, and a wistful smile overtakes his face as he recalls how well the top people at J&L made out when they closed down the mine and crushing plant. The executives and big shareholders walked away with multi-million-dollar compensation packages, Persson says before his eyes drift off to the rock tailings that tower above the road. He leaves his feelings about what they left behind unspoken.
Newton Falls is officially a hamlet within the Town of Clifton, and Bob Snider is the towns supervisor – an elected position similar to that of mayor in larger towns. Snider runs a hardware and auto parts store near Star Lake, publishes a weekly shopper newspaper, and says he is still cautiously optimistic that the paper mill will come back to life and give the area a desperately needed economic and psychological boost. If you had asked me a couple of months ago, Snider says, Id have said, Yes, yes, yes! But its been so quiet the last two or three months. Im not saying its bad news, but Im wondering because as supervisor Im usually the one told to keep it quiet or something, and Im not hearing it.
Snider says the paper mill will have a lot of good help if they can reopen because of the skilled workers from the other paper mills in Northern New York and beyond that have shut down. Theres a lot of people who want to stay in this North Country, Snider explains. You start offering $15-an-hour jobs and youll have a line out the door.
Snider has lived most of his life in the area and understands the effects of deindustrialization on his community. The school used to have between 1,100 and 1,200 students, he says. Now, theres less than 350. Many of the people left behind are older and have no plans or no means to go anywhere. Then we get young people who cant afford to live anywhere else. A lot of people are on programs, and the give-a-shit factor just isnt there. The town is slowly eroding away, he says. Its a sad thing. Our biggest export right now is our youth and their minds.
Andy Leroux is vice president of operations for the paper company and works with a small staff to keep the mill as ready as possible to swing into production if and when a new public-private partnership can be forged. He says the corporate strategy since the shutdown two summers ago has been to keep the lights and heat on to show off the plants viability. A third-generation worker at the 350,000-square-foot paper mill, Leroux has worked there for over 30 years and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of how everything under the 185-foot-tall landmark brick smokestack functions as he guides visitors through the plant. Leroux duties range from oiling the three-story-high machines to keeping the roof cleared of snow to making sure spare parts and some raw materials are on hand. He says the companys sales staff is busy building a new clientele for the specialty papers the plant can produce on short notice. One advantage of being a smaller and more nimble plant, according to Leroux, is quicker turn-around times for specialty paper orders.
A revitalized rail link is essential Leroux says a crucial requirement for resuming paper production at Newton Falls is the re-establishment of a railroad spur into and out of the mill. The rail link is needed both to allow delivery of bulk raw materials – paper pulp, chemicals, equipment and more – as well as the shipment of finished paper products. The four-mile rail connector to the main line that once served the mill is now overgrown, partially flooded, and under disputed ownership. But Leroux says hopes hinge on New York States recent $10-million commitment to refurbish the short line once the other pieces of production fall into place. Well produce rolls of paper that are too large for a tractor-trailer, he explains, so the rail is absolutely necessary for us to extend our reach into the marketplace.
Butch Brown is the Newton Falls postmaster, and remains on tenterhooks until he and the rest of the town learn the results of a final regional review of the post offices future. Brown says he worked at the paper mill in the 1970s, but at 64 he describes himself as too old to be optimistic about either the mill or the town returning to viability. The day I see 100 cars down there is the day Ill believe it, he says. Theres not a day that goes by that someone doesnt ask about it, but the reality is not good. Brown says several people he knows have left town to take other jobs, and he would be very surprised if they come back even if the mill reopens. He agrees with Snider that a skilled labor force is available elsewhere in the region, but its getting them here thatll be difficult.
Some, though, are committed to a brighter future here. Crystal Burke is in her early 30s and worked in accounting and finance at the mill from 2007 until she got laid off last year. She says she thought about moving after a fire last October destroyed part of her house but decided to stay because she is very confident about the mill reopening. She says the new owners have good strong leaders with a good business model that will allow them to compete in specialty paper markets around the world. Theyve figured out what we need to do, Burke says, and I think well go back in pretty soon. So for the time being at least, she will stay in town.
With or without the paper mill, among the critical pieces that must fall into place for the town to survive is a functioning sewage treatment facility. For decades, the mill has provided sewage treatment in town and that service would end should its closure become permanent. The soil here is too thin to permit private septic systems, according to Supervisor Snider, so in 2009 town voters approved a $5-million project that he says is near shovel-ready and could be eligible for grant funding beyond the $500-per-household annual user fee. That would save the mill a lot of money, Snider says, and without it the houses in town are just about worthless.
As the town and its people await a deal at the paper company that many consider make-or-break for Newton Falls survival, daily routines continue. Kids on spring break ride bikes in the mostly vacant streets or play beneath the towns water tower. A couple shuttles boxes and light furniture into the moving truck that has backed up to the door of an apartment house next to the tower. A few older kids take turns splitting firewood in Fire Chief Jeff Provosts driveway as loose dogs wander aimlessly.
In Sniders view, the towns future is a numbers game. He says that between his town of Clifton and neighboring Fine, weve lost 1,500 people. If you dont have the numbers, you cant survive. So if this company doesnt get [the mill] going, its probably the last hurrah unless something in global markets changes, Snider says.
Kelly Smith succeeded his father as Town of Clifton highway superintendent five years ago, and he and his six-man team of highway workers do what they can on a tight budget to keep the towns 26 miles of paved roads and streets safe and maintained all year. But Smith acknowledges grave concern for the towns future and laments its decline. Its terrible, he says from a spot upwind of the dust his crew has kicked up behind the post office. Theres really nothing here for most people to do.